Residents still waiting while blame game continues in New Orleans

February 02, 2007|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Mardi Gras is coming, but life still is hard in the Big Easy. Almost 1 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate is up, tourism hasn't recovered and the poorest neighborhoods still look miserable enough to make inviting backdrops for aspiring presidential candidates.

Dressed in a new pair of jeans in a ravaged Lower 9th Ward yard, former Sen. John Edwards declared he was "exploring" a presidential run just after Christmas. Sen. Barack Obama, who also is "exploring," performed his usual starring role among other senators Monday as they held a field hearing in New Orleans on Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts. Can Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was getting acquainted with Iowans that day, be far behind?

President Bush made himself an inviting scapegoat for New Orleans' woes with his slow response to the Katrina crisis. His omission of New Orleans from his recent State of the Union address only handed his critics yet another convenient domestic policy stick with which to beat him.

As a result, New Orleans makes a convenient symbol for the worst that could happen to cities neglected by Washington, even if the real sources of New Orleans' problems are a lot closer to home.

As a result, when Mayor C. Ray Nagin faced the senators Monday, he predictably found three familiar targets on which to blame the city's woes: race, class and President Bush.

"I'm not asking for more money," Mr. Nagin told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "I just want the money you've already allocated to my citizens to help them."

In fact, as the panel's hearings indicated, Mr. Bush moved hell and high dollars to help New Orleans once he was rudely awakened by the crash of his plunging approval ratings. Congress has allocated more than $110 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast region, yet most of it has not reached residents who are trying to rebuild homes and businesses.

What's the holdup? State and local officials point fingers at each other. State officials say $595 million is waiting for the city to complete the application process. Mr. Nagin says the state's documentation process is too cumbersome.

That's not much of an excuse. Free money without safeguards and accountability is an invitation to waste, fraud and abuse.

Yet Mr. Nagin, the black leader of a mostly black city, focused on how Katrina exposed "an ugly underbelly" of poverty, particularly among the area's black population. And he questioned whether the country had "the will to fix it."

"I think it's more class than anything," he said, "but there are racial issues associated with it also."

Conspicuously omitted from Mr. Nagin's list was another familiar thorn in the city's side: the mayor.

If the state is being unreasonable in its demands for information or documentation, Mr. Nagin should explain what the problem is. It is certainly not unreasonable for the state or federal government to ask for accountability.

If anyone deserved the mayor's criticism, it would appear to be someone closer to home - Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. The two of them have seldom gotten along, but it would not be polite for the mayor to discuss his strikingly personal dispute with his fellow Democrat in public. It's easier to blame Mr. Bush.

Ms. Blanco has not fully explained what steps the city still has to take, and Mr. Nagin has not explained exactly what is so unreasonable.

The recovery of New Orleans could hardly be a more worthy cause, but the worthiness of the cause does not justify a free hand with public money, regardless of the recipient's race or class.

Remember last year's highly publicized reports of frivolous expenditures by a few displaced Katrina victims of their emergency checks? In their case, cash handed out too casually not only wasted resources but also gave the truly needy a bad name.

When I visited New Orleans on my own fact-finding trip one year after Katrina, I was dismayed by how little faith the remaining residents had in their political leaders or in the city's recovery. Months later, I can see the reasons for their dismay. It's long past time for state and local officials to sit down and hammer out their differences. Some genuinely needy Louisiana residents are waiting for their leaders to lead.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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