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Leaving Behind New Oreans' Poor - Again

By Clarence Page

Residents of the Crescent City's poor neighborhoods were abandoned long before Hurricane Katrina, said the newly elected Democratic Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois shortly after the storm hit. They've been abandoned again, judging by the city's sluggish pace of recovery.

As presidential candidates returned to the Big Easy for anniversary photo opportunities, they found plenty of visibly bad news to use as backdrops. Across the Gulf Coast you can tell which neighborhoods are recovering by how much household income they have. The better-off blocks have recovered. The worse-off neighborhoods have a restored house or a "FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer" mobile home here and there amid fields of tall weeds and fragments of former homes.

Heaping further tragedy on the city is its murder rate, which is on track to be the nation's highest for the second year in a row, according to the New Orleans police department. A year after Katrina shrank the city to less than half of its 450,000 population, its murders actually increased, which means the murder rate more than doubled. Two years after the storm, the population has climbed to an estimated 270,000, and the number of murders has increased again.

Armed robbers preying on Hispanic day laborers, flush with cash from rebuilding jobs, present a new post-Katrina tragedy, police say. It takes a massive failure of public imagination and commitment to make New Orleans a bigger job producer for newcomers than for the jobless who already lived there.

Although the Bush administration deserves the depressed approval ratings it received for its slow response to the Katrina emergency, we should not let inept state and local leaders off the hook for the sluggishness with which federal help has reached those who need it.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin point fingers of blame at each other and at federal bureaucracy for the city's sluggish recovery. But the more time passes since Katrina, the less the storm can be used as an all-purpose excuse for inept state and local leadership.

Overall, Congress appropriated $94.6 billion for hurricane restoration. Most was spent on emergency relief and other short-term projects, such as debris removal and emergency funding. Barely more than 40 percent of the $35 billion appropriated for long-term rebuilding has been spent.

Of the $328 million that FEMA has obligated for emergency response and to rebuild city-owned infrastructure, the city reports that only $185 million of it has trickled down from the state.

Nagin complains about the state's cumbersome accounting system, which is intended to ensure that funds are properly spent. But with charges of kickbacks and other corruption already swirling around some of the Gulf Coast recovery efforts, the notion of accountability for where the nickels and dimes are going is hardly unreasonable.

Blanco has decided not to run for reelection this November. As the city's crime rate soars, so has the heat against Nagin. In a recent Associated Press interview, he said that he is considering a run for the governor's seat. Great. One recent poll of likely Louisiana voters by Southern Media & Opinion Research found 64.7 percent held an unfavorable view of Nagin's job performance. If he runs for governor, as one Big Easy resident put it, he can "fail upwards."

Nagin was reelected in May of last year, you may recall, after his infamous speech in which he promised to keep New Orleans a "chocolate city" because that's "the way God wants it to be." He later apologized. More recently, the former cable television executive inserted his foot back into his mouth with the observation that two recent killings, while sad, "keeps the New Orleans brand out there." Yes, it has, although it's not the sort of branding that delights the city's still-recovering tourism industry.

One group of tourists that post-Katrina New Orleans attracts is presidential candidates. They came to New Orleans to bash Bush and present their various recovery proposals. Democrats Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, plus two Republicans, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, came to mark the second anniversary. Each denounced bureaucratic hang-ups in recovery money and offered plans to improve emergency aid, crime fighting and recovery funding, if elected.

But the problems in cities like New Orleans are not the fault of the federal government alone. Local leaders need to be accountable, unprotected by the bizarre etiquette of race and politics.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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