Lessons unlearned

August 29, 2007

That day two years ago when Hurricane Katrina advanced on the Gulf Coast with deadly fury marked the beginning of the end of many Americans' faith in the Bush administration to protect them.

Weather alerts went largely unheeded by the White House and emergency agencies. Warnings that were passed on to those in harm's way were delivered with no sense of the limitations on people too poor to escape. New Orleans, sitting in a land basin between two bodies of water, never had been provided the protection it needed.

And in Katrina's aftermath, when administration officials stood passively by as New Orleanians were trapped on rooftops or in a foul sports arena, federal lawmakers began wildly throwing money at the catastrophe - only to see one dollar of every six siphoned off by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "waste, fraud or abuse." Much of the rest has yet to reach its intended recipients because of red tape.

Katrina offered many lessons for how to prevent such disasters in the future, and how to minimize the impact of those that can't be dodged completely. But two years out, there has been disappointingly little evidence that President Bush and the government agencies involved have applied those lessons.

For New Orleans to be rebuilt in the same vulnerable spot was a sentimental decision, based on a futile attempt to re-create the unique community that was lost. That decision won't be second-guessed here, except to note that the city is already a different place, lacking its former rich, ethnic mix as affluent, mostly white communities recover far more quickly than the black neighborhoods adjacent to overrun levees. The French Quarter and Mardi Gras remain, but they can't make up for that loss.

Congress has made only limited progress in reforming coastal and wetlands protections to prevent similar disasters. It approved a long-term plan for restoring Louisiana's deteriorated coastlines, but the money won't be available for a decade. Meanwhile, Congress authorized a pre-Katrina-style 72-mile levee that will further erode the coast.

FEMA, the agency that exemplified ineptitude by giving millions to people who didn't qualify and denying millions to others who did, is still buried in the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security. A far more nimble structure must be found to distribute aid and recovery funds. Mr. Bush and FEMA officials are trying to redeem themselves with more attentive handling of the current flooding in the Midwest, but the scale of displacement is so much smaller.

Katrina was the worst natural disaster ever to hit this country, but it surely won't be the last on that scale. The best way to regain the confidence of the American people, as well as to pay tribute to those who suffered from Katrina, would be to prepare for the next disaster using all the tools available to the world's most advanced nation - and not be caught again by surprise.

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