Now that Dubya has written a blank check for the Second Reconstruction of the South, we have to determine who will manage the most expensive federal program in history. In the interest of efficiency, why not turn the project over to a Manhattan grand jury and cut out the middle men? There are middle men (and women) aplenty lining up to make this project not only the most expensive, but the most corrupt in U.S. history. Not, surely, throughout the South. But certainly in the state that could qualify as a banana republic if only it grew some bananas. Louisiana’s state and city governments are preparing to let the good times roll again.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin — he who sent people to the Superdome and Convention Center without provisioning them with food, water and security — is at it again. Nagin is inviting French Quarter businesses to reopen, and residents of the chic Garden District and the less-than-chic Algiers neighborhood (about 180,000 people all told) to return. The city to which they may return is without a water supply that’s fit for anything other than putting out fires or flushing toilets. It is without levees that can withstand another storm, even one much weaker than Katrina. It is without emergency telephone service and an evacuation plan that could work if the levees fail again. Nagin is having a panic attack. He’s looking at a city from which his voting base has decamped to higher ground. He has to get those voters back, even if it means some will die from floods, cholera, or amoebic dysentery.
Coast Guard VAdm. Thad Allen, who took over as senior FEMA man on site when hapless Michael Brown was sent packing, is not happy with Nagin. Allen — scheduled to meet with Nagin today — said that he planned to bring his concerns to the mayor’s attention, which is all he can do. Louisiana continues to suffer from the constitutional right of self-determination, by which it has chosen to be governed by a collection of clowns unequalled outside the U.N. General Assembly. We mustn’t tinker with the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean we should leave the Louisiana banana republicans in charge of spending all that dough.
At the time proceedings were delayed by Katrina, several senior officials of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness were awaiting trial on federal indictments regarding missing funds and improper expenditures. FEMA had demanded the return of $30 million given LOHSEP whilst federal bean counters continue to search for another $60 million which no one at LOHSEP can seem to find. (One FEMA report said the LOHSEP couldn’t account for more than 90% of $15 million in FEMA funds it had awarded to Louisiana contractors.) Are we crazy enough to trust this crew with billions of federal construction dollars?
THE PRESIDENT ASSURED US THAT the enormous federal expenditures will be overseen by a collection of tough inspectors general. That’s a good idea, but it’s not nearly enough. Those such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Sen. Mary Landrieu are already lining up to demand that all the Louisiana reconstruction work be given to Louisiana companies. Blanco — a real life female version of Mel Brooks’s Gov. LePetomaine — is anxious that no one outside her circle of cronies be allowed to partake in the coming flood of federal funding. Letting them make the decisions on how these billions of dollars will be spent is tantamount to turning the whole thing over to Benon Sevan and the UN diplomutts. We can do better.
First, the president has to create a system of offsets to begin restoring some sanity to the federal budget. For every dollar or two we spend on the South, another dollar should be cut elsewhere. The wonderful people of Bozeman, Montana, asked their congressman to give back the couple of millions they were to receive but didn’t need under the recently passed highway bill porkfest. Every American should do the same. That won’t pay for the reconstruction, but it will get us off on the right foot. When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said there was no more fat to cut from the federal budget, he proved that Republicans are as drunk on federal budget booze as the Dems ever were. (Dear Mr. DeLay: You gotta be kidding me, fella. Haven’t you heard of NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the United Nations? Call me, and I’ll give you a long list of federal and globaloney pestilences that could be cut to save many billions.)
Second, if we’re going to pay for this, let’s make sure we don’t have to pay for it again in 20 or 50 years when the next Category 4 or 5 storm blows in. After the 1900 hurricane that destroyed the island city of Galveston, practical Texans decided to raise the level of ground above sea level before rebuilding. They piped in millions of tons of dredge spoil — the stuff you drag up from the bottom of the river — to raise the city above sea level. If Texas could do that a century ago, is it too much to expect from New Orleans today? Bulldoze the destroyed areas of the “soup bowl” in which New Orleans sits, pile a few billion cubic yards of dredge spoil on top, and then rebuild. It’s one of those twofers that the laws of physics grant. If the dredging is done in the right places, it’ll help strengthen the levee system by reducing the pressure on it.
Third, put someone in charge we can trust. That’s obviously not LOHSEP, at least as it stands. Part of the price of federal aid should be a requirement that LOHSEP be re-staffed at the top two or three levels with people who haven’t spent their careers in Louisiana government and who have proven expertise in administering huge construction contracts. If Gov. Blanco resists, FEMA should simply cut LOHSEP out of the loop and do the contracting itself. And no, we can’t yet have that much confidence in FEMA. The FEMA side should be put in the hands of someone with expertise and experience in huge construction projects, and that person should be supported by some of the hundreds of certified procurement contract managers in industry and government who could be drafted to work for FEMA and run this right.
Last, and not at all least, the feds should impose time and performance limits on every contractor. Gov. Pete Wilson got a lot of California earthquake-damaged highways rebuilt years before anyone thought they could be. He did it by imposing a system of financial big rewards and harsh penalties that made sure contractors got things done in the minimum amount of time without sacrificing the quality of the work. There are a lot of contractors based in other states (such as — brace yourself — Halliburton) that can do massive jobs such as this very well. Let ’em all bid against each other and drive the costs down.
The object of the reconstruction is not to rebuild what was destroyed on a new foundation of old defects. The object must be to help our fellow Americans rebuild their lives in a way that makes them less vulnerable to a repeat of the catastrophe they’ve suffered. We’re going to have to do this more than once. The next natural disaster or terrorist attack may take out another American city that will have to be rebuilt. In rebuilding New Orleans we can learn how not to build one disaster on the ruins of another. Let’s get it right the first time.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).