Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, August 28, 2006

Broken Promises


Last September President Bush stood in New Orleans, where the lights had just come on for the first time since Katrina struck, and promised “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Then he left, and the lights went out again.

What happened next was a replay of what happened after Mr. Bush asked Congress to allocate $18 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. In the months that followed, congressmen who visited Iraq returned with glowing accounts of all the wonderful things we were doing there, like repainting schools and, um, repainting schools.

But when the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was running Iraq, closed up shop nine months later, it turned out that only 2 percent of the $18 billion had been spent, and only a handful of the projects that were supposed to have been financed with that money had even been started. In the end, America failed to deliver even the most basic repair of Iraq’s infrastructure; today, Baghdad gets less than seven hours of electricity a day.

And so it is along our own Gulf Coast. The Bush administration likes to talk about all the money it has allocated to the region, and it plans a public relations blitz to persuade America that it’s doing a heck of a job aiding Katrina’s victims. But as the Iraqis learned, allocating money and actually using it for reconstruction are two different things, and so far the administration has done almost nothing to make good on last year’s promises.

It’s true that tens of billions have been spent on emergency relief and cleanup. But even the cleanup remains incomplete: almost a third of the hurricane debris in New Orleans has yet to be removed. And the process of going beyond cleanup to actual reconstruction has barely begun.

For example, although Congress allocated $17 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for Katrina relief, primarily to provide cash assistance to homeowners, as of last week the department had spent only $100 million. The first Louisiana homeowners finally received checks under a federally financed program just three days ago. Mississippi, which has a similar program, has sent out only about two dozen checks so far.

Local governments, which were promised aid in rebuilding facilities such as fire stations and sewer systems, have fared little better in actually getting that aid. A recent article in The National Journal describes a Kafkaesque situation in which devastated towns and parishes seeking federal funds have been told to jump through complex hoops, spending time and money they don’t have on things like proving that felled trees were actually knocked down by Katrina, only to face demands for even more paperwork.

Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.

But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.

Mr. Bush could have moved quickly to turn his promises of reconstruction into reality. But he didn’t. As months dragged by with little sign of White House action, all urgency about developing a plan for reconstruction ebbed away.

Mr. Bush could have appointed someone visible and energetic to oversee the Gulf Coast’s recovery, someone who could act as an advocate for families and local governments in need of help. But he didn’t. How many people can even name the supposed reconstruction “czar”?

Mr. Bush could have tried to fix FEMA, the agency whose effectiveness he destroyed through cronyism and privatization. But he didn’t. FEMA remains a demoralized organization, unable to replenish its ranks: it currently has fewer than 84 percent of its authorized personnel.

Maybe the aid promised to the gulf region will actually arrive some day. But by then it will probably be too late. Many former residents and small-business owners, tired of waiting for help that never comes, will have permanently relocated elsewhere; those businesses that stayed open, or reopened after the storm, will have gone under for lack of customers. In America as in Iraq, reconstruction delayed is reconstruction denied — and Mr. Bush has, once again, broken a promise.

Bob Herbert is on vacation.


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