Friday, September 09, 2005


Stephanie Grace's latest column via

STEPHANIE GRACE: A chance to get it rightThursday, 3:44 p.m.

Maybe it's too soon to think about the future, with the shocking images of so many of our fellow citizens' suffering so fresh. Clearly, it's way too soon to put aside the sadness we all feel over our hometown's devastation, the rage over the emergency response bureaucracy that sputtered for days while storm victims went without food, water and shelter.

Yet it's worth trying to focus on what's to come, because out of the ruins, there's reason for hope. The new New Orleans area will be different, sure, and depleted in countless ways -- but restored and perhaps even improved in others.

This much we know: Our problems have now, belatedly, gotten the undivided attention of the federal government. As U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon put it, President Bush's photo-op flyover morphed into a reality check; he and all those other federal officials who've been so cavalier about protecting the coastal buffer zone and investing in flood control finally get it, and are ready to open their wallets. Maybe the feds' promised largesse comes from guilt over their disastrous initial response. Maybe it's simple political cover. Some will surely call it blood money. Doesn't matter. We'll take it.

"A tragic opportunity," is how U.S. Sen. David Vitter described it. "This is our chance to get it in one lump sum."

So what's the "it"? Let's start with the obvious: Money to build new levees, repair the ones that breached and raise those that survived. Then there's the coastal restoration funding that Vitter, his Senate colleague Mary Landrieu andother Louisiana politicians have been seeking for years. There's the cash to replace the decimated I-10 twin spans and reconnect New Orleans to points east. And there's more. The flooded-out areas include wealthy neighborhoods that will be rebuilt with insurance, but they also encompass poorer regions that were full of dilapidated houses and schools. This is the government's chance to make sure families that return live in decent surroundings, that kids learn in clean, modern buildings that actually have air conditioning and functional bathrooms. That ruined neighborhoods are filled in, so people can rebuild on higher, safer ground.

By the time it gets rolling, we could be looking at the something akin to the Works Progress Administration, the massive depression-era public works project, all over again. Katrina's wreckage isn't just a federal problem, of course. The city and state face countless challenges and expenses to get the city up and running again. There will be huge federal contracts, but much of the spending will also flow through local agencies. Some have already been let. And that's a cause not just for hope but for deep concern.

So far, Louisiana's the politicians have mostly behaved well, and many have acted downright admirably. And despite the tragically slow start, the feds are now talking a good game. But we all know what's happened in the past when the money started rolling in: Pockets got lined. Work got shoddy, and the public got fleeced. Such brazen public corruption too is part of our local heritage, the ugly flip side to the music, food, architecture, whistle-in-the-face of danger spirit, and everything else worth salvaging. But it doesn't have to be part of our future. The whole world is watching how we pull this off, and that means an awful lot of people will be following the money. This is a chance for the people in charge of the most concentrated urban renewal effort in U.S. history to get it right, to make sure the dollars actually follow the need. That means it's also a prime chance to recast our area's image for the better.

Wouldn't it be amazing if the 'Louisiana Way' became one of Katrina's casualties?

As Vitter said, we'll never forget the tragedy, but we are faced with an ncredible opportunity. We owe it to the survivors to make the most of it.

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