- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

The devastation and death Hurricane Katrina left in its wake once again tests America’s inexhaustible ability to quickly recover from catastrophe.

That’s happening in New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast regions laid waste by a storm of previously unimaginable destruction, which led to the population’s exodus to higher ground and shut down key parts of our energy industry.

As bleak and chaotic as things may look across the shattered coastal states, this region will be hit by an even greater force than Katrina: the power of an $11 trillion economy to rebuild, repair and reclaim what was lost and destroyed.

An early sign was evident on Wall Street last week immediately following the storm, when stocks were tanking (before Wednesday’s rally), but construction company stocks flew high.

Investors knew one of the economic benefits of natural disasters is the explosion of insurance claims, reclamation projects and reconstruction spending that in time will total in the tens of billions of dollars.

As the waters recede and the massive cleanup and rebuilding begins, New Orleans and other besieged communities will need construction crews to restore bridges, repave roads and repair and reinforce levies breached by the storm. That will require an army of workers, including engineers, electricians, telecommunications workers, reclamation companies of all sorts, carpenters, plumbing contractors, health-care professionals and many others.

The Big Easy is one of our most exciting cities, with a large tourism industry. But it has a troubled history of massive poverty and one of the country’s highest crime rates, as we saw in the hundreds of looters who ravaged downtown stores.

But this city and other devastated areas will become employment central in the weeks and months to come as a wave of businesses move in to take advantage of an explosion in private and government construction.

The region also will benefit from significant federal spending. “As much as it takes,” Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary, said last week, even as the government moved an armada of equipment, personnel and relief supplies to the affected regions.

While President Bush was criticized for not responding quickly enough, he mobilized a recovery effort by Wednesday that included a dozen departments and agencies, from the Pentagon to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

An emergency assistance bill that, as of this writing, was speeding through Congress Friday will pump $10.5 billion in federal disaster aid to cities and towns to cope with the recovery costs. A much bigger assistance bill is expected to pass in the weeks to come.

But there were even bigger economic problems at stake due to the disaster, principally the shutdown of oil rigs, pipelines and refineries in the Gulf region. Forecasters say this and other collateral economic interruptions in communications, railroad and interstate trucking will slow the nation’s economic growth. But that remains to be seen.

Mr. Bush correctly tapped into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to maintain existing oil supplies. But gasoline prices still shot up to $3 or more per gallon in many areas on fears of oil shortages and a decline in refinery output.

One possibility: A temporary cut or suspension in federal gas taxes that would help beleaguered drivers cope with rising prices until all area oil rigs and refineries are fully operational.

But after all is said and done, some fundamental things will not change. New Orleans will still be below sea level and vulnerable to future storms, which could be even more powerful than Katrina. This means regional infrastructure must to be reinforced with stronger sea walls and levies and more sophisticated drainage systems.

Stricter building development regulations are needed as well. Homes, casinos and other developments foolishly built along the coast took the storm’s full brunt and were demolished. Shore zones must be made off-limits for new building.

The paths hurricanes take are often unpredictable. But we can be sure the Gulf will spawn more of them. And it’s a good bet a future storm could make Katrina seem mild by comparison.

The time to better prepare is now.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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