Local leaders share blame

Katrina Two Years Later

August 31, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

Two years later, too little has changed in New Orleans.

Residents of the Crescent City's poor neighborhoods were abandoned long before Hurricane Katrina, said Barack Obama, then a newly elected senator from Illinois, shortly after the storm hit. They've been abandoned again, judging by the city's sluggish pace of recovery.

As presidential candidates returned to the Big Easy for anniversary photo opportunities, they found plenty of visibly bad news to use as backdrops. Across the Gulf Coast, you can tell which neighborhoods are recovering by how much household income they have.

Heaping further tragedy on the city is its murder rate, which is on track to be the nation's highest for the second year in a row, according to the New Orleans Police Department. A year after Katrina shrank the city to less than half of its 450,000 population, its murders increased, which means the murder rate more than doubled. Two years after the storm, the population has climbed to an estimated 270,000, and the number of murders has increased again.

Armed robbers preying on day laborers, flush with cash from rebuilding jobs, present a new post-Katrina tragedy, police say.

Although the Bush administration deserves the depressed approval ratings it received for its slow response to the Katrina emergency, we should not let inept state and local leaders off the hook for the sluggishness with which federal help has reached those who need it.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin point fingers of blame at each other and at federal bureaucracy for the city's sluggish recovery. But the more time passes since Katrina, the less the storm can be used as an all-purpose excuse for inept state and local leadership.

Overall, Congress appropriated $94.6 billion for hurricane restoration. Most was spent on emergency relief and other short-term projects, such as debris removal and emergency funding. Barely more than 40 percent of the $35 billion appropriated for long-term rebuilding has been spent.

Of the $328 million that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated for emergency response and to rebuild city-owned infrastructure, the city reports that only $185 million of it has trickled down from the state.

Ms. Blanco has decided not to run for re-election this November. As the city's crime rate soars, so has the heat against Mr. Nagin. In a recent Associated Press interview, he said that he is considering a run for the governor's seat. Great. One recent poll of likely Louisiana voters found 64.7 percent held an unfavorable view of Mr. Nagin's job performance. If he runs for governor, as one Big Easy resident put it, he can "fail upwards."

Mr. Nagin was re-elected in May 2006, you may recall, after his infamous speech in which he promised to keep New Orleans a "chocolate city" because that's "the way God wants it to be." He later apologized. More recently, he inserted his foot back into his mouth with the observation that two recent killings, while sad, keep "the New Orleans brand out there."

One group of tourists that post-Katrina New Orleans attracts is presidential candidates. They came to New Orleans to bash President Bush and present their various recovery proposals. Each denounced bureaucratic hang-ups in recovery money and offered plans to improve emergency aid, crimefighting and recovery funding, if elected.

But the problems in cities such as New Orleans are not the fault of the federal government alone. Local leaders need to be accountable.

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

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