08/25/2010 08:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Obama Should Say in New Orleans This Weekend

NEW ORLEANS -- President Obama comes here this weekend to deliver a speech on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the city's near-destruction. Since he's got a big Iraq speech coming up as well, and since nobody wants a repeat of the ghostly, ghastly, floodlit Jackson Square performance by his predecessor, I've taken the initiative to write a short version of the speech I hope he delivers to New Orleans and the nation:

My fellow Americans, we can't move ahead successfully until we recognize the true nature of what happened here. Five years ago, while the Mississippi Gulf Coast was savaged by a hurricane, New Orleans was savaged by the mistakes and misjudgments of a federal agency mandated by Congress to protect this city.

Our federal taxes ended up killing nearly two thousand people here in the Crescent City. Acknowledging those facts, which are there for all to see in two painstakingly investigated independent reports, helps people here deal with the pain and the disappointment. That's why there's now a state historical marker at the site of the worst of the more than 50 failure points, the breach of the floodwall at the 17th Street Canal.

But that's just the first step. It's easy to pledge that such a horrible event, born in the good intentions of Congress to protect this area, won't happen again. So far, it's just been words. The same agency that failed you, and us, is using the same low factor of safety, much lower than they use for rural dams, for a system meant to protect a large urban area. And we're still making our water policy, in a century of rising sea levels, the old-fashioned way: one pork-barrel project at a time. Other cities, supposedly protected by federal levees, face the possibility of the same horror New Orleans experienced.

That's not good enough for America. That's not good enough for the 21st century. So today, I'm announcing a new initiative -- a national water policy to deal with situations where, because of hurricanes or flooding, there's too much water, or with situations where, because of drought, there's too little. We'll assemble a group of scientists and engineers from across the spectrum of studies -- from geography to hydrology -- and we'll invite our friends from the Netherlands, who have seven centuries of history in learning how to live with water, to join in drafting a policy that can adapt with the changes that we know lie ahead.

If we have to, we'll create a new agency to execute this policy, to work with state and local partners in a constructive and cooperative way. Not because we want to add a new agency to the federal government, but because the old one clearly hasn't worked. When you kill the people you're pledged to protect, that's reason enough to change.