What's most distressing, perhaps, is that neither Mr. Powell nor the administration shows any recognition that our failed levees are the handiwork of the federal government. He does not seem to think that the federal government is obliged to clean up the mess that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made. He alludes to the need to help uninsured, flooded-out homeowners who lived outside the floodplain defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fair enough, but Washington's obligations don't end there. FEMA's flood maps assumed the integrity of the levees that the corps built. Many residents had reason to expect minor street flooding but never believed water would reach their gutters.
Both President Bush and Mr. Powell have argued recently that Washington has set aside $85 billion to the recovery effort. But that figure vastly overstates the amount of long-term help that greater New Orleans has received. A significant chunk of the money has gone to Mississippi. Another chunk has been spent on temporary housing, debris removal and other short-term priorities. (For some of these items, FEMA appears to have paid outrageously high prices.)
President Bush stood in Jackson Square some months ago, and he promised in no uncertain terms that this community will be rebuilt. But his administration's more recent statements look like a carefully orchestrated brush-off. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush all but ignored the lingering effects of the worst catastrophe on American soil in generations. And now, with Mr. Powell's piece in the Post, the administration has gone on a public-relations offensive against greater New Orleans.
The White House is acting as though the destruction here wasn't all that bad, and that only the disorganization of local authorities is stopping a swift recovery. That presumption is willfully obtuse. Mr. Powell and the White House should stop casting about for reasons to oppose Rep. Baker's bill. They ought to get behind it or propose a workable alternative.