This editorial appeared in the New York Times of February 13, 2007. I’ve been highly critical of the Times over the years, but it’s hard to beat this commentary for intelligence, compassion and understanding of the situation in New Orleans.
The recovery along the Gulf Coast and particularly in New Orleans is going too slowly, and there are steps the government can easily take to speed the process. One thing the Bush administration should have done immediately after Hurricane Katrina was to waive the requirement that state and local governments match federal rebuilding funds. The time to correct that mistake is now…
Much of federal disaster aid is handed out according to the Stafford Act, which calls for states to ante up a quarter for every 75 cents provided by the federal government. That way, locals still contribute what the law deems a fair share of each rebuilding dollar. When the damage exceeds $110 for each person in the affected state, the split increases to 90 percent for the federal government with a 10 percent local match.
Since 1985, the local matching requirement has been waived entirely for 32 separate disasters. It was waived for the State of Florida after Hurricane Andrew, when damage was $139 for each Floridian. It was waived again for New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, which cost $390 per New Yorker.
Yet somehow the Bush administration has not found it necessary to forgive the local match for Gulf Coast states after the double-whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, except for costs associated with debris removal and some emergency services — despite the fact that the two storms wreaked roughly $6,700 worth of damage per capita in Louisiana. This inaction is particularly surprising, given that such a large proportion of the damage can be attributed to the failure of the federal levees that were supposed to protect the New Orleans area.
State officials say they have set aside close to $1 billion to help struggling local governments pay matching funds for things like replacing police stations and repairing sewage systems. They are trying to cover some 20,000 construction projects in all, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to millions. That’s no small amount of administrative and bureaucratic hassle on top of the expense.
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana has been asking President Bush for the waiver since September 2005, shortly after Katrina struck. Last week a group of Democratic senators led by Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, sent a letter urging President Bush to make this change, however belatedly. They called that step “not only prudent, but vital to the recovery.”
We agree. And if President Bush won’t do it, Congress should legislate the change.