By David Vitter
Like most in Louisiana, I’ve been very disappointed by the Bush administration’s recent statements about our hurricane recovery. National and Louisiana leaders seem to be talking past each other rather than finding and building on common ground. And yet, amid this fracture, there are the seeds of a path to long-term recovery.
The administration recently rejected legislation by Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, to create a Louisiana Recovery Corp. that would use government-backed bonds to finance the buyout of entire devastated neighborhoods for wide-scale redevelopment.
One of its most significant objections is the lack of a clear rebuilding plan. On Jan. 26 President Bush stated, “The plan for Louisiana hasn’t come forward yet. And I urge the officials, both state and city, to work together so we can get a sense for how they’re going to proceed.” And in his Feb. 2 op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Bush’s recovery coordinator, Donald Powell, wrote that the Baker bill “is not a long-term plan” that includes “key elements, among them: decisions on where, and where not, to rebuild.”
Many in Louisiana took great offense at these comments. The Baker bill is our plan, they said, and we have numerous planning commissions at work discussing tough issues such as the “footprint” question: where and where not to rebuild.
But all of us in Louisiana have to understand that this is not yet the single, specific plan so many in Washington – and the country – are looking for. They don’t want numerous planning commissions, they want a single plan. They don’t want to listen to a footprint discussion, they want to see a footprint – one that doesn’t include areas likely to suffer catastrophic flooding again. This plan should also detail bold reforms, such as replacing the failed Orleans Parish public school system with a diverse collection of charter schools and replacing the outdated Charity Hospital system with coverage that offers the needy solid preventive and other care through numerous providers.
There are some things that the president has to understand, too. He has to understand that this is not as simple as saying that you can’t build in a flood plain (the White House is in a flood plain) or that you can’t build below sea level (the country would have to sacrifice a vitally important energy hub and port system). Most of all, he has to understand that the great majority of New Orleans’s catastrophic flooding occurred because of breaches in levees that were not overtopped by water but that failed from below because of gross design mistakes made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So what is the path to long-term recovery that all of this suggests? It’s this: The governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans, parish presidents and all of their commissions must produce one single, fully flushed-out, detailed plan. This must not be just another request for billions in federal assistance in the midst of a vague discussion of the tough local issues but a specific plan that addresses those issues head-on, including the footprint question. In other words, a denser New Orleans with a smaller footprint, but also one that can accommodate everyone who wants to return and that can be defended against future hurricanes at significant but manageable expense.
For its part, the Bush administration must endorse this general path now to encourage bold, courageous Louisiana decisions. And this endorsement must mean that the administration will take the lead in funding a responsible plan once it is produced. The $6.2 billion in federal block grant funds approved in December is a great down payment. But additional federal dollars will be needed to buy out areas that can be converted to natural flood basins and to help rebuild others. This could be done through the Baker bill or a state version of it with federal support.
Up to now, the difficult footprint discussion has been framed almost entirely in terms of some people not being able to return to their neighborhoods. But the path suggested above would offer these residents much greater financial recovery through buyouts than they could possibly enjoy otherwise, coupled with the ability to rebuild their lives in nearby parts of a safer, stronger community.
As difficult a path as this is, I truly believe that the people will accept it — in Louisiana and across the nation. The real question is, will the Louisiana and national politicians?
To end on a very hopeful note, I believe we are seeing movement down this path on both sides. We recently received some very positive news involving increased additional support for housing and other needs on the ground in Louisiana – an additional $4.2 billion in new federal block grant funding for housing in Louisiana has been proposed by the White House and Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuild Chairman Don Powell. It’s also important to remember that this amount is the start of the process, not the end, as the funding must first be approved by Congress.
Louisiana needs to develop a single, unified, bold and specific plan for rebuilding that can gain the confidence of folks in Washington and around the country. This detailed plan must address the tough issues head on, including the footprint question of where and where not to rebuild. That’s the Louisiana side of the equation in obtaining this funding.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how our state can best continue to recover after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita or any other federal matter. Please contact me at any of my state offices or in my Washington office by mail at U.S. Senator David Vitter, U.S. Senate, 516 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or by phone at 202-224-4623. You can also reach me on the web at http://vitter.senate.gov.
David Vitter serves Louisiana in the United States Senate.