What New Orleans most needs as it heads into the New Year is responsible, clear-eyed leadership, rather than the Keystone Kops approach we've seen thus far. There are too many agencies, contractors, activists, charities, volunteers, planners and politicians, all in some sense competing against each other to get a grip on this slippery elephant of a problem. Nationally, we seem to lack the political mechanisms to sort through all the challenges, decide what's most important, focus our considerable resources at that point. That's sobering - not just for New Orleans but for the rest of the country.
For instance, my heart sank when I saw this article last week in the Times-Picayune, written by my estimable co-author Mark Schleifstein:
After months of delays in determining the true cost of upgrading the region's levees, with more delays expected, Army Corps of Engineers officials now fear they may not have enough money to pay for the improvements, the agency's director of civil works said Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Don Riley won't be able to confirm the existence or extent of the financing gap until June, when officials are expected to put cost figures to plans for protecting the region from a once-in-100-year flood. But he and members of the state congressional delegation worry that current allocations won't cover escalating costs.
WTF? Congress allocated $6 billion to upgrade the levees to provide 100-year flood protection - a level most experts consider quite modest, a mere starting point. Not counting inflation, that was roughly eight times the total cost of the levee system pre-Katrina. Now, it looks like that may not be enough to do the job. I don't know all the details, but I would hesitate before bashing the Corps for this news - fixing/upgrading hundreds of miles of levees at breakneck speed is expensive. Costs are hard to estimate.
Do we have the leadership to get on top of this problem - i.e., the bottom-line security of New Orleans, something the city and region need for resettlement to proceed? I'm dubious. Levee funding is the bailiwick of congressional committees and the White House. They have already directed billions to the city, and between them seem to have only the vaguest understanding of the issues involved. Maybe the Democrats in Congress will be more sympathetic, but they will have a lot on their plate - including the deficit. What happens when New Orleans comes back, hat in hand?
Nobody thinks New Orleans should get a blank check going forward - the city, the state and the people are going to have to prioritize which areas deserve the big bucks for protection and which do not.
But those efforts will be for naught without backing from ... America. We need people at the national level with a clear image in their heads of what can and should be done, able to rise above the bean counting and set some goals and priorities. I don't know if we'll get that in 2007. But here's hoping.