Many questions, few results

It’s one of those anniversaries like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that everyone would just as soon not observe _ two massive hurricanes within days of one another bearing down on the lowlands of Louisiana and Mississippi, hundred-year storms bringing death and destruction and misery to nearly 2 million Americans.

One year later the question is still how long will it take to complete the job of restoring the Gulf Coast to its pre-hurricane status? What is the bureaucratic hang-up at all levels _ federal, state and local _ that keeps the refugees homeless so long afterwards? What has happened to all the billions of dollars (115 billion of them) from the public treasury and many more from private donations? Are the levees now able to withstand the possibility of another “mother of all storms,” which seem to be occurring on a regular basis?

The answer to the first question is maybe five years, or 10 years or never. In other words, no one really knows, certainly not the man in charge of the federal portion of this giant reclamation project who isn’t expected to be around when and if that occurs. The answer to the rest is equally as difficult in a nation that proved itself woefully unprepared for such catastrophic devastation despite the experience of 9/11.

Don Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, has a three-year deadline that is probably unrealistic considering the size of the task, but that was all Congress was willing to give him. So the Texas banker, who is essentially just a moneyman and facilitator in this whole scenario, is understandably elusive when it comes to making predictions. He would rather talk about how much of the federal allocation is now in the hands of the state and local authorities and leave the timeline and details to them.

Powell opened a session with reporters marking the one-year anniversary of Katrina and Rita _ storms that had a devastating impact on 90,000 square miles of coastline _ by reciting the statistics that are now familiar to every American but nonetheless staggering: more than 1.5 million residents directly affected with 800,000 forced to live outside their homes, the largest displacement of people since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; more than 204,000 homes damaged at a loss of $15 billion for their owners; 80 percent of New Orleans flooded with water still standing 60 days later. It was, Powell said, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Some $115 billion in federal funds have been poured into the region and private individuals and businesses have donated several billions of dollars more. Yet, while there is marked achievement in restoring education and water systems and refineries and so forth in some of the battered areas, the overall picture of devastation in many others along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts is still grim. Houses remain un-rebuilt although funds are available and work permits are increasing; citizens are still displaced, and large amounts of debris remain despite a massive cleanup effort. There was more debris produced in three counties in Mississippi than all the debris created by both Hurricane Andrew and the World Trade Center, according to Powell. Most of this, he said, has been removed. But New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward may never be completely restored.

When asked what primary issues remain to be settled, Powell replies that there are three, “levees, levees, levees.” He explains that the question of safety is the most pressing with the hastily rebuilt flood barriers still untested. But he praises the Army Corps of Engineers for its efforts in meeting the deadline of the current hurricane season despite concern by outside experts that the job of preparing for the next storm has major flaws and that a vital study to set a new standard is still more than a year away from completion.

Then, of course, there are always the political tensions that get in the way of progress, the animosities between northern and southern Louisiana and the complaints from Mississippians that New Orleans is getting all the attention and the complaints from New Orleans that Mississippi’s powerful Republican congressional delegation, particularly in the Senate, and its Republican governor, Haley Barbour, have won the state preferential treatment in the cleanup.

Powell concedes the tensions existed and have not been helpful, but he sees them fading and cooperation improving. Authorities in the various jurisdictions are putting aside their petty differences, he contends.

Still most of the questions remain unanswered and the road back seems far longer than the three years that Powell’s mandate lasts. He says this assignment has been a defining moment in his life _ well, for the nation, too.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)