Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2005/ 15 Kislev, 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Down on the levee, a little good news | The good news for New Orleans, that the feds will spend $3.1 billion to strengthen the levees, is good news for the rest of us. If we can spend billions to rebuild Baghdad we can spend billions to rebuild the Big Easy. Nobody but a mullah ever went to Baghdad for a good time.

"The levee system will be better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans," says Donald Powell, the White House man to see for reconstruction of the cities that Hurricane Katrina destroyed. The president will ask Congress for a new appropriation of $1.5 billion in addition to the $1.6 billion he asked for earlier, to strengthen the levees with concrete, steel and stone, to rebuild canals and modernize the vast network of pumping stations, some of them nearly a hundred years old.

Ray Nagin, the oft-befuddled mayor of New Orleans, for once sounded grateful. He even said nice things about President Bush, and was pleased by the brightening prospects for "the city that care forgot" (but nature didn't). Said the mayor: "This action says, 'Come home to New Orleans.' "

The levees obviously hold the key to the city. Once the hundreds of thousands of Orleanians who fled the city for refuge in Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and 38 other states are assured that there's protection for hearth and home, many will be eager to rebuild their lives in their old habitat.

The next important task is to keep the architects, city planners and other remorseless bureaucrats at bay, lest they rush in to transform the tawdry, cheerfully rowdy land of dreamy dreams into a sterile, antiseptic model of prissy planning where real people would never go.

There's already grumbling from some of the "inspectors" eager to look the gift horse in the mouth. "Science will tell us what we need to do," Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who rarely has a kind word for the rest of us, said yesterday. She's off to the Netherlands to see the dikes, and to study how the Dutch have successfully held off the sea with an intricate system of man-made barriers. She thinks $30 billion over 20 years ought to be enough for starters.

The president, who was slow to get off the dime and cashiered the helpless and hapless director of FEMA long after he should have, has nevertheless tried to do some of the right things since. FEMA, in fact, is awash in unspent relief money; more than $60 billion has been appropriated for Katrina relief (and for relief of Hurricane Rita on the Louisiana-Texas border little more than a fortnight later). Another $7 billion in tax breaks for Gulf Coast counties is under congressional consideration. Louisiana officials, beginning with Gov. Kathleen Blanco, chafe at the conditions imposed on the disbursement of the cash, but they'll have to learn to live with their reputation for grift and graft.

Doom, gloom and falling skies is always the recipe for disaster reporting. The Chicken Littles of television's Entertainment News shout and scream at the sight of the first rain cloud on the horizon, and most of the other reporting from New Orleans, particularly after shock and awe subsided, has done nobody good. The usual blabbermouths rushed in to describe Katrina relief as a fevered reprise of Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and found cameras and notebooks waiting. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, ever on the scout for exploitable misery, saw nothing but sinister intention in the rush to help. Louis Farrakhan said the feds weren't fit to help the refugees from the storm, rapper Kanye West said George W. Bush "just doesn't care about black people," and a clutch of congressmen were entertained with fantastical claims that white folks had deliberately dynamited the levees to drown black folks.

Now it turns out that white folks, not black folks, suffered disproportionately. Figures compiled by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reveal that fewer than half of the 658 bodies from New Orleans identified so far are black, though blacks made up nearly 70 percent of the ante-Katrina population. A slightly smaller number were white, though whites comprised only 30 percent of the ante-Katrina population. Nearly all of the sob-sister reporting focused on the black Ninth Ward, but the middle-class, mostly white Lakeview neighborhoods were equally devastated.

Such fly-specking of the statistics is sad, because a hundred percent of the suffering was human. In modern America, where race-hustling is a growth industry, it's sometimes difficult to keep the human statistic in mind. The flood waters behind the levees the feds promise to rebuild higher and stronger are equal-opportunity killers. The good news is for everybody.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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