By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
September 03, 2005
The huge task of rebuilding the Gulf Coast is almost without precedent in the nation's history. Not since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake has a major U.S. city faced the sort of widespread natural destruction as New Orleans is now enduring.
Bush's challenge goes far beyond dispatching federal emergency money and offering an empathetic presidential shoulder. He must figure out how to help nearly a million displaced Americans and the nation's No. 1 oil-producing region get back on their feet, an undertaking likely to last the rest of his presidency.
It will be weeks before realistic assessments of damage and cost to rebuild come into focus, with 80 percent of New Orleans still submerged in water and large portions of the Gulf Coast uninhabitable.
"I suspect there are people in New Orleans who will not be able to get back to their homes for months, if not forever," warned Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Initial estimates placed the insured losses at between $15 billion and $25 billion. But that does not include the cost of uninsured losses - most homes are not covered for flood damage - and billions of dollars in federal expenditures, which could easily raise the total closer to $100 billion.
The ordeal holds consequences for all Americans, who will pay billions of dollars extra for gasoline, airline tickets and heating oil, prompting fear among some analysts of an economic slowdown, in addition to dedicating tax dollars to the recovery.
It will also limit Bush's options as he pursues tax reform and military initiatives and tries to focus the nation's attention to the other priorities of this second-term agenda.
"The question is where does the money come from, and what gives. It's a budget that's already stretched to the limit," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at George Washington University. "The magnitude of government spending is already attacked by one wing of his party."
"The president has been unambiguous in his mandate that we leave no stone unturned, and leave no effort unexhausted," said Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who will run a Cabinet level task force to coordinate federal relief.
"We have substantial challenge, but we do have substantial resources," Chertoff said. "We will do what it takes."
The same "whatever it takes" attitude has been expressed by many federal officials, who pledged to a sustained, nationwide response.
"There will be new legislation," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "There will be new policies. There will be new levels of help and support."
The cost of the calamity and New Orleans' precarious sub-sea level position prompted some to quietly question whether the city ought to be rebuilt and whether federal dollars wouldn't be better spent permanently relocating residents to higher ground. Bush has seemed to dismiss such talk outright in his remarks. "The great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it," he said this week.
Bush's popularity soared after the Sept. 11 attacks, and some see his full-throttle response to Katrina as an opportunity to bolster his record-low approval ratings. Compared with building peace in Iraq, restoring the Gulf Coast to its pre-hurricane days may appear to be a manageable task, Hess said.
"He's moving from complicated questions that are in many ways beyond his reach to matters that really are within his reach," Hess said. "This is an area, at least in the short term, in which a president can gain approval and maybe that gives him a little more wiggle room with the rest of his agenda."
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