- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

It is now possible to see more accurately the dimensions of damage wrought by Katrina on New Orleans.

There were many fewer deaths than people feared — far fewer than Mayor Ray Nagin’s guess of 10,000. And evidently many more people managed to evacuate than we thought. Not all the horrors reported at the Superdome and the Convention Center actually occurred. The water still covering much of the city is not as toxic as was feared.

By no means all the worst damage was done to black neighborhoods: The 17th Street Levee break first flooded the heavily white Lakeview area west of City Park (the only part of New Orleans that voted for President Bush in 2004). Not only the heavily black Lower Ninth Ward suffered huge devastation but also heavily white St. Bernard Parish just to the east.

It is possible also to better gauge mistakes by the local, state and federal governments. The mainstream media have concentrated on blaming the Bush administration, and in fact the Federal Emergency Management Agency seems to have operated without the required sense of urgency and with an overpunctilious regard for red tape. But others erred, too.

As one New Orleans evacuee in the Houston Astrodome told ABC News after Mr. Bush’s speech in Jackson Square, “I feel like our city and our state government should have been there before the federal government was called in. They should have been on their jobs. … I mean, they had RTA buses, Greyhound buses, school buses that was just sitting there going underwater when they could have been evacuating people.”

It’s also obvious much of the most effective aid came from the private sector. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were there quickly with food and water, though the Louisiana state government barred them from the Superdome. Wal-Mart donated $17 million and used its amazing distribution systems to send down things that were needed, and had 111 of its 126 closed stores open within days.

In Jackson Square, Mr. Bush found his voice for the first time since the levees broke. He described the people he had seen on the ground and the recovery work already done. He promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast and re-engineer New Orleans, and added — wisely, in view of Louisiana’s heritage of corruption — that inspectors general would oversee the spending.

But despite the Great Society tone of his speech, he did not promise another Great Society. He proposed instead a Gulf Opportunity Zone — presumably, a tax-free status to encourage investment. He called for Worker Recovery Accounts of up to $5,000 for job training, education and childcare. He proposed an Urban Homesteading Act on federal lands.

Mr. Bush’s liberal critics have hoped the Katrina disaster would increase support for big government, and they have a point when they say there are some things only government must do and it — or they: local, state, federal — must do them well.

Mr. Bush’s proposals use government differently. Like the GI Bill of Rights and the no-down-payment Veterans Administration home mortgages of Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. Bush’s Worker Recovery Accounts and Urban Homesteading would help people, but only those who in turn do something to lift themselves. And his Opportunity Zone turns on its head the liberal notion that the most effective way to help the poor and helpless is to tax everyone else heavily and hand out money to those in need.

Lower taxes and less bureaucracy, Mr. Bush is saying, will enable people in the private sector to build the kind of self-propelling economy that offers everyone a chance out of poverty.

The effectiveness of such ideas remains to be seen. Large numbers of evacuees will not return to New Orleans. Many seem to find more opportunity in Houston or Dallas than ever in New Orleans. But Katrina response shows it is unwise to rely totally on a supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing government.

Government could have performed better than it did this time. But even if it had, the private sector, with the dedication of the nonprofits and the suppleness of a Wal-Mart, would have been necessary to an optimum response. Like FDR’s veterans’ aid 60 years ago, Mr. Bush offers not handouts, but a hand up. The GIs then did much better than expected. Perhaps the Gulf Coast and New Orleans victims of Katrina will, too.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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