EDITORIAL: What Mr. Powell doesn't get
Friday, February 03, 2006
When President Bush appointed Donald Powell as the federal government's post-Katrina reconstruction czar, greater New Orleans had reason to hope that the plain-spoken Texas banker would take up our case in Washington. And at least at first, Mr. Powell seemed to grasp the severity of the crisis facing our area. Advertisement
But even if he did, that understanding has not shaken loose the federal help that our region needs and deserves. Last week, the White House came out against U.S. Rep. Richard Baker's plan for federally backed buyouts of thousands of severely damaged homes. And Mr. Powell defended the White House's position on the Baker bill in an opinion piece in Thursday's Washington Post.
In that column (reprinted on the opposite page), Mr. Powell repeats a number of unfounded, misguided arguments against the bill. He implies that local leaders have so far failed to come up with an adequate recovery plan; that the Baker bill will result in a vast, unaccountable bureaucracy; and that federal involvement in the buyout process will somehow get in the way of private-sector efforts to bring greater New Orleans back.
Mr. Powell -- along with the administration for which he speaks -- is wrong on all three counts.
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Any plan, he says, should include some "key elements," one of which involves making tough decisions about where and where not to rebuild. But local governments can't move people from flood-ravaged neighborhoods by waving a magic wand. State and local political leaders of all stripes recognize that some kind of buyout plan is crucial to any effort to lure flooded-out homeowners to higher ground. Unless the owners of flooded-out property are released from their mortgages -- as Rep. Baker proposes to do -- they will have no option but to rebuild in place or lose their property to foreclosure.
Meanwhile, Mr. Powell's assertion that the Louisiana Recovery Corporation, the federal entity that Rep. Baker wants Congress to create, will grow into a lumbering bureaucracy is difficult to believe. The LRC would have a cap on its borrowing and would go out of existence after a specified time period. Yet Mr. Powell complains simultaneously that the LRC does not represent a long-term plan. Well, of course not. The whole point is to dissolve the agency once it is no longer needed.
But it will be needed for some time. Just as federally funded airports and highways are essential to the private aviation and trucking industries, federal involvement is crucial to getting flooded-out property back into commerce after Katrina. Yet in insisting that the LRC would discourage the free market, Mr. Powell seems to presume that private banks and insurers are scrambling to lend money and write new policies in greater New Orleans. This is hardly the case.
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What's most distressing, perhaps, is that neither Mr. Powell nor the administration shows any recognition that our failed levees are the handiwork of the federal government. He does not seem to think that the federal government is obliged to clean up the mess that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made. He alludes to the need to help uninsured, flooded-out homeowners who lived outside the floodplain defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fair enough, but Washington's obligations don't end there. FEMA's flood maps assumed the integrity of the levees that the corps built. Many residents had reason to expect minor street flooding but never believed water would reach their gutters.
Both President Bush and Mr. Powell have argued recently that Washington has set aside $85 billion to the recovery effort. But that figure vastly overstates the amount of long-term help that greater New Orleans has received. A significant chunk of the money has gone to Mississippi. Another chunk has been spent on temporary housing, debris removal and other short-term priorities. (For some of these items, FEMA appears to have paid outrageously high prices.)
President Bush stood in Jackson Square some months ago, and he promised in no uncertain terms that this community will be rebuilt. But his administration's more recent statements look like a carefully orchestrated brush-off. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush all but ignored the lingering effects of the worst catastrophe on American soil in generations. And now, with Mr. Powell's piece in the Post, the administration has gone on a public-relations offensive against greater New Orleans.
The White House is acting as though the destruction here wasn't all that bad, and that only the disorganization of local authorities is stopping a swift recovery. That presumption is willfully obtuse. Mr. Powell and the White House should stop casting about for reasons to oppose Rep. Baker's bill. They ought to get behind it or propose a workable alternative.