Even as Congress struggled to find ways to pay for relief and reconstruction after Katrina, Hurricane Rita was handing the lawmakers another huge bill for damage.

Immediately after Katrina, Congress quickly — and with few controls — passed a $62 billion down payment to begin shoveling out the stricken Gulf Coast and caring for its residents.

The early estimates of Katrina’s costs were in the range of $150 billion to $200 billion, but this week Louisiana’s congressional delegation proposed a $250 billion recovery package for that state alone. Surely, the Mississippi, Alabama and Texas delegations will shortly be around with their own recovery plans.

Whatever the cost of Katrina, Rita and, if hurricane forecasters are right, storms still to come this year, the country will pay it. But, that said, the taxpayers deserve every assurance that the money is well spent. The 9/11 experience doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in that regard.

The Department of Homeland Security this week appointed the chief financial officer of the National Weather Service to oversee, according to its announcement, “the management and expenditures of all contracts, grants and governmental operations related to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.”

Refreshingly, considering the scandalous lack of qualifications of FEMA’s now-resigned director, Matthew Jadacki has impressive qualifications _ a 24-year career in auditing government operations, including 14 years at FEMA.

But the job of mopping up seems to be getting larger even as this is written and will involve many more federal agencies than just Homeland Security. It is no reflection on Jadacki to say that the situation requires more auditing firepower.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the chair and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, have proposed a special inspector general to audit the hundreds of billions that will be spent on relief and reconstruction efforts.

This position makes a great deal of sense, assuming Congress gives the special inspector general the necessary authority and manpower. Further, this official could coordinate the auditing efforts of the existing Cabinet department inspectors general and even Congress’ own auditors. The post need not be permanent.

Periodic and public reports on the efficiency and honesty of relief and reconstruction will provide welcome and necessary assurance to the American people that their generosity is not being wasted.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)