When George W. Bush finally managed to get to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said this:
"Tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."
The electricity was turned on to light his speech, and then turned off again. That should have told us everything we needed to know about how much this President's pledge was worth. And in case we were still in doubt, the announcement that he had put Karl Rove in charge of reconstruction made it clear how serious he was about rebuilding one of America's greatest cities.
Now, two years later, Douglas Brinkley writes about what has happened since then:
"Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I've seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.
They arrive in the city's Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.
After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.
Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city's long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn't President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government's participation in the rebuilding? And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?
Eventually, the volunteers' altruism turns to bewilderment and finally to outrage. They've been hoodwinked. The stalled recovery can't be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I've concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine."
A report from the Institute of Southern Studies gives some details:
"Although it's tricky to unravel the maze of federal reports, our best estimate of agency data is that only $35 billion has been appropriated for long-term rebuilding.
Even worse, less than 42 percent of the money set aside has even been spent, much less gotten to those most in need. For example:
* Washington set aside $16.7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, one of the two biggest sources of rebuilding funds, especially for housing. But as of March 2007, only $1 billion -- just 6 percent -- had been spent, almost all of it in Mississippi. Following bad publicity, HUD spent another $3.8 billion on the program between March and July, leaving 70 percent of the funds still unused.
* The other major source of rebuilding help was supposed to be FEMA's Public Assistance Program. But of the $8.2 billion earmarked, only $3.4 billion was meant for nonemergency projects like fixing up schools and hospitals.
* Louisiana officials recently testified that FEMA has also "low-balled" project costs, underestimating the true expenses by a factor of four or five. For example, for 11 Louisiana rebuilding projects, the lowest bids came to $5.5 million -- but FEMA approved only $1.9 million.
* After the failure of federal levees flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received $8.4 billion to restore storm defenses. But as of July 2007, less than 20 percent of the funds have been spent, even as the Corps admits that levee repair won't be completed until as late as 2011.
The fact that, two years later, most federal Katrina funds remain bottled up in bureaucracy is especially shocking considering that the amounts Washington allocated come nowhere near the anticipated costs of Gulf rebuilding.
For example, the $3.4 billion FEMA has available to recover local public infrastructure would only cover about one-eighth of the damage suffered in Louisiana alone. But this money is spread across five states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas -- and covers damage from three 2005 hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Wilma."
While George W. Bush celebrated John McCain's birthday, this administration left people to die in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Now it is leaving the city of New Orleans to die.
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