One can only hope that the holiday season brings good cheer to those who lost everything two years ago from the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, especially those who were at the mercy of charlatans who stole more than $500 million of government aid and the Lord only knows how much in relief funds donated by private citizens with big hearts and often small pocketbooks. That is $1 out of every $10 in government aid alone.

A Government Accountability Office report issued last February actually estimated that as much as $1.6 billion was improperly spent on Katrina-related relief alone. The money went for such necessities as guns, strippers and tattoos among a whole list of other things not related to what the donors intended. Perhaps if the money had been properly spent the Gulf Coast recovery would be much further along than it is.

Every few weeks, the television networks air another travelogue on the progress of recovery in New Orleans and surrounding environs in Louisiana and Mississippi. Stories abound about the Ninth Ward and the devastation still evident there. Celebrities flock to the area with ideas for rebuilding the houses destroyed by the breach of the seawalls protecting the city. One would think that it all had occurred yesterday. Movie star Brad Pitt recently launched a project to sign up big-time architects for reconstruction of the blighted area and Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have been building houses for musicians.

Well, from the statistics put together by the GAO, the auditing and investigative arm of Congress, they had better hold on to their wallets. The Department of Homeland Security awhile back said that it is trying to recover as much of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s misspent money as possible. That amounts to $494 million in aid given to 134,000 people who were allegedly victims of the hurricanes and flooding. That, of course, doesn’t count the horrendous amount of wasted money in what must be a textbook example of bureaucratic inefficiency by FEMA. More than half of the money went to people who couldn’t prove residency. Overpayments and duplicate payments make up the rest of the improper outlays.

So as the New Year begins, what could have been an example of America’s ability to recover from natural disaster — our specialty when it happens elsewhere in the world — is still an embarrassing failure. If the Bush administration should be judged harshly for anything outside of foreign policy blunders, it is the abysmal way it has handled this domestic tragedy. The rest of the world has watched in disbelief at the sight of all those downed trees, uprooted houses and debris-littered vistas that still dot the Gulf Coast. How is it that it has taken the major gambling casinos along the coast only a short time to become once again new and improved palaces as if nothing ever happened? Maybe FEMA should hire these entrepreneurs.

More than that, Americans themselves should be appalled, realizing as they must that if the government with the vast resources of the most technologically and economically advanced society on Earth can’t deal with this natural disaster, how in the world could it be counted on to handle a major terrorist attack that included a nuclear device or some other weapon of mass destruction? How much of whatever relief that was forthcoming would be diverted as though this was the poorest Third World country run by a corrupt despot?

History shows that it is the American way for some to get rich off disaster. Certainly, that has been the case in most of the nation’s wars where taking advantage of the need for quick response and reconstruction has become a way of life. New Orleans, whose reputation as a dangerous place is well documented and deserved, has never been shy about bilking its tourists. Hotel prices in the downtown area now are as high as any place in the nation. A mid-February rate after Mardi Gras at a chain-operated hotel when taxes are counted can cost $400 a night and that’s for a fairly standard room.

So let us toast the good, unfortunately displaced people of New Orleans who have survived all the suffering, realizing that some have done so quite better than others. One should be very cautious about reaching deeply into one’s pocket without substantial investigation, no matter how that plight is depicted in the media. If the urge to do so overwhelms you, go down there and hand it out personally.

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