Big Easy in comeback mode

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NEW ORLEANS.

Riding through this hurricane-hammered city a little shy of two years since Katrina lashed it, things are looking up. My friend Randy Boudreaux, whose family arrived here about 1760, takes me on a magical misery tour of neighborhoods that were windblown and waterlogged in “The Storm,” as locals call it. While suffering abounds, optimism ascends.

The Lakeview district merged with adjacent Lake Pontchartrain as this community’s homes stewed in up to 14 feet of water after Katrina. It’s still in bad shape. However, while Lakeview’s residences are mainly empty, the previous chaos and clutter have abated. Widespread cleanup has helped.

“The refrigerators are out of the trees,” he says. “Where people did not get flooded, they’ve returned. Where they got some flooding, they are rebuilding. And where people got water up to their ceilings, they largely have stayed away.”

On the bright side, the black and brown lines that smeared so many walls and structures once the waters settled largely have faded away or been expunged. Thousands of moldy vehicles once huddled beneath the Interstate 10 overpass have been cleared away. This was no small feat.

Esplanade, the mansion-lined street on the French Quarter’s eastern boundary, has recaptured its earlier elegance. Last year, its wide, tree-filled “neutral ground” or median was tangled with fallen branches and other debris. While many New Orleans neighborhoods remain grim, Carrolton, the French Quarter, Gentilly and Uptown look much healthier than a year ago.

So what would keep the good times rolling?

First, crime control is a must. The bad guys have returned with a vengeance. The local homicide rate has climbed a staggering 100 percent this year, according to a recent NBC News story. New Orleans needs a strong dose of Rudolph Giuliani-style “broken windows” policing. Fighting small crimes usually nabs the perpetrators of bigger violations. A New York Police-type CompStat system would help police commanders pinpoint crimes on precinct maps and deploy cops exactly where crimes tend to unfold.

Second, the Federal Emergency Management Agency still cannot connect trailers with everyone who needs them. While some still seek them, others who have finished rebuilding their houses no longer need trailers but cannot get FEMA to collect them.

FEMA could help by deregulating its failed trailer operation. It should allow inhabitants to sell their trailers to those who need them. Also, FEMA henceforth should give disaster victims vouchers for purchase and delivery of such trailers. The federal government should finance emergency housing for displaced citizens when natural disasters obviate other options. But Washington should not manage this entire process, as FEMA’s 12,000 trailers and 8,300 mobile homes still stored in Hope, Ark., so maddeningly attest.

Vouchers will help disaster victims demand trailers; shown the money, entrepreneurs and manufacturers will supply them.

Third, close Mr. Go. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (nicknamed “Mr. Go” and the “Hurricane Highway”) facilitated Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. In 1956, Congress authorized this mini-Mississippi River as a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico. But on Aug. 29, 2005, Mr. Go became a varnished wooden lane that sped the bowling ball of Katrina’s storm surge right into the pins of New Orleans’ skyline. The resulting strike still smarts.

“Without Mr. Go, the flooding would have been much less,” Louisiana State University researcher Hassan Mashriqui has concluded. “The levees might have overtopped, but they wouldn’t have been washed away.”

“Mr. Go is a travesty,” says the American Spectator’s Quin Hillyer, a New Orleans native and an old college friend. “But it was built long before scientists understood all this stuff. The crime is that the government continued to dredge it even after these bad effects were understood…. Filling in Mr. Go would help somewhat to keep hurricane damage less disastrous.”

More than ever, New Orleans’ fate rests with pumps that keep their promises and levees that don’t take no mess. Another factor, by definition, is beyond human control. Let us hope 2007’s so-far-tranquil hurricane season will remain as hushed as last year’s.

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