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Lost City

There are no drifting corpses this time, no families clinging to sun- baked roofs or huddling in the lightless squalor of the Superdome. But the year following Hurricane Katrina has been its own catastrophe--quieter, but in many ways more appalling than the storm's passage. If Katrina suggested a rot in American society--a decrepit federal government, a blunted sense of social solidarity, the entrenchment of poverty--the aftermath has confirmed it.

We can no longer plead ignorance about broken, vulnerable New Orleans, yet we've done a shameful job of rescuing it.

No matter how large the reconstruction spending sounds when described by the administration or Congress, it will not nearly suffice to care for Katrina's victims or rebuild their city. While facets of life have resumed their old patterns in many neighborhoods, important components of the city infrastructure resemble, well, Baghdad. Chunks of New Orleans can count on daily power outages. The municipal water system hemorrhages 85 million gallons of water per day. Medical care has dwindled--with hundreds of doctors and nurses fleeing the city and less than half its hospitals receiving patients.

Indeed, it is already difficult to recall the outburst of idealism Katrina triggered just one year ago. Liberals announced that the storm had brought them closer to the spirit of FDR and infused them with a new pride. George W. Bush choreographed a turn in Jackson Square, where he portrayed himself as a latter- day Michael Harrington. And Congress promised that it would bleed the Treasury to save the city. Rebuilding New Orleans, politicians proclaimed, would provide an oldfashioned sense of national purpose.

While some money has flowed to the shores of the lower Mississippi, this sense of national purpose has been completely absent. Reconstruction has proceeded aimlessly and without leadership. Mayor Ray Nagin hasn't even issued his grand plan for the city yet. (That is scheduled for the end of this year.) The municipal authorities who could make the city livable are starved for funds. Despite needing $2 billion in repairs following the storm, the city's water and sewage system has received a mere $32 million loan from Washington. Meanwhile, the feds have completely stiffed the city's bankrupt power company--which may pass $700 million in losses and rebuilding costs on to consumers, essentially requiring them to pay $100 more in utility costs each month for the privilege of living in a semi-habitable city.

Nobody would have expected New Orleans to be put back together in a flash. But Congress and local officials have dithered, and their glacial pace will exact a permanent cost. Displaced homeowners are only now becoming eligible for federal money to help them rebuild--months after many made the decision not to return. A relief bill passed by the GOP House in March managed to omit critical funds for battered levees. At times, negotiations stalled because some Republicans tried to divert Katrina relief away from Louisiana.

Indeed, Katrina's aftermath has not proved that congressional Republicans are devoid of empathy, but rather that they reserve it for states run by former party chairmen. As of late spring, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had wheedled his old friends in Washington into giving his constituents roughly the same sized block grant as received by Louisiana--even though Louisiana suffered more than three times the number of seriously damaged homes and lost one more major city than its easterly neighbor. The Democrats, meanwhile, have been disappointingly silent, preferring to focus on GOP incompetence abroad rather than at home.

Little wonder that what was billed as a revived war on poverty has barely amounted to a skirmish. There have been no new anti-poverty initiatives, let alone a beefing up of the old ones. As a result, the number of Americans living below the poverty line increased last year, as it has for every year of the Bush presidency.

One could posit historical and cultural explanations for our inaction. The flip side of American dynamism, after all, is its tendency toward amnesia--a cheerful urge to move beyond pain and wait for the Oliver Stone movie to provide an eventual catharsis. Every time an event is imagined to "change everything," American life bull-headedly continues along its old path.

Except, that is, when it can't, as in the case of the hundreds of thousands of residents displaced by Katrina who have yet to be--who may never be--made whole. Their government has now failed them twice. The first time--for all the errors and misjudgments made by fema and the Army Corps of Engineers--the catastrophe was difficult to predict. This time, by contrast, it was all too easy.