Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Since the storm, my opinion of NOLA's paper has changed markedly for the better. Here's one reason why:

First, [Bush] can expressly commit to a Category 5 storm protection system. While reconstruction czar Donald Powell said in December that the federal government is committed to "building the best levee system known in the world," the issue of Category 5 protection is merely a study item at this point.

The question of how to protect South Louisiana from the most ferocious storms may need study; the question of whether to do so does not.

That is not to diminish the significance of the administration's plan to spend $3.1 billion to add height to levees that had eroded over time, armor some levees with concrete and stone, close off three canals at Lake Pontchartrain and add pumping stations at those spots. Once complete, those steps should make greater New Orleans safer than it was before Katrina.

Yet, Congress in December refused to approve the $300 million needed to build the pumping stations and armor levee walls. Louisiana's congressional delegation hopes to get quick approval in a few weeks, and they need President Bush's help to make that happen.

A top-notch hurricane protection system must be accompanied by aggressive efforts to rebuild our coastal marshes. To pay for a $14 billion restoration plan, Louisianians have been pleading with Congress for years for a share of revenues from oil and gas drilling off our shore. So far, the state has only managed to get a fraction of the necessary money, and not from offshore revenues. President Bush's influence could help move Congress to act.

Levees and coastal restoration, while vital, are but one piece of the puzzle of reconstruction. Hanging almost as heavily over the heads of so many residents is how to avoid losing their homes to foreclosure. If there are massive foreclosures, hundreds of salvageable homes will die of decay. So will the once-vibrant neighborhoods around them.

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Richard Baker has a plan to avoid that painful outcome, and President Bush's support is crucial to its passage.

The Baker legislation creates the Louisiana Recovery Corp., which would use government bonds to buy flooded homes, help the owners pay off their debt and recover some of their equity, then bundle pieces of property and sell them off for redevelopment.

The administration has been concerned about the program's cost. But there are limits on the corporation's debt, and the sale of properties would generate cash to pay off its obligations. Moreover, the renewal of neighborhoods would fuel the region's recovery.

Rebuilding greater New Orleans and its levees will be expensive, but this region is vital to the economy and culture of this nation. Besides, Katrina wasn't just a natural disaster; the federal government is also partly culpable. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led us to believe we were safer than we were. Now we're left to beg for help to rebuild what should never have been lost.

When President Bush stood in Jackson Square during those dark September days, he promised to "do what it takes . . . stay as long as it takes" to rebuild this community. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans," he said.

He is right. There is no way on earth to imagine this nation without the bounty of our waters, our land and our people. But the only way to save this cultural and economic treasure is for President Bush to make sure the nation helps us rebuild safely.

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