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JASON BERRY

Pompeii on the Mississippi

NEW ORLEANS
THREE MONTHS after the epic flood, we are specimens of congressional torture. Network celebrities who swept through for disaster backdrops are gone. The suffering in the Superdome and Convention Center is old footage. Torturing a city is tougher coverage for soft newsbodies.

Galatoire's restaurant will open in January. Come for Mardi Gras. Catch a night parade. Tour our dead neighborhoods. See Fats Domino's dead home. Picnic on the levee of our Pompeii.

The city flooded because the US Army Corps of Engineers failed at its job of levee management. FEMA failed to provide interim housing for tens of thousands of people displaced. A city of 450,000 has about 100,000 back.

Entire neighborhoods go dark at night -- no power, no people. Those clamoring to return -- to demolish or rebuild -- cannot. No place to live.

Apathy toward the dying neighborhoods stains the Social Darwinists who run Congress. They wear the masks of prolife Christians. As Nero fiddled while Rome burned, these Jesus-lovers yawn at a city on the rack, their pensions safe in the mammoth debt furnished by the worst US president ever.

President Bush came to Jackson Square in September and promised a sweeping recovery. His backers in Congress recoiled from the cost.

True, our senators, Mary Landrieu and David Ritter, floated a $250 billion recovery bill ''that surprised even jaded Washington veterans with the extent of its overreach into unrelated special-interest projects," as one veteran insider confides. Does that warrant euthanasia for a city? Congress gave funds to FEMA and to investigate the levee failure under the US Army Corps of Engineers.

A National Science Foundation report has found that the Army Corps and its subcontractors did not dig deep enough to secure the 17th Avenue Canal floodwall, a flashpoint in TV shots. ''This is the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States," Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley consulting professor told the Times-Picayune.

The ''target neighborhoods," as Mayor C. Ray Nagin calls those that have rebounded, lie on dry ridges of the sub-sea-level terrain, notably the French Quarter, the Garden District, Algiers, and Uptown, where life is seminormal with stores and restaurants. Drive a few minutes and you'll see mounds of debris, trashed buildings, brown water lines on houses, shattered lives.

Entergy, the utility company, lost much of its infrastructure and filed for temporary relief from creditors. Day by day, power trickles back, while the economy starves. Federally paid contractors and salvage workers pour in from other states while locals struggle without homes to find jobs.

The leadership vacuum from the White House to Baton Rouge to City Hall is frightening. There is no other word for it. Bush makes nebulous remarks about helping ''the people down in Katrina" (we are a new geography), but his priority is counterattacking critics of the Iraq war. The storm-ravaged Gulf South won't recover without a sane tax policy to generate revenues.

Time Magazine selected Governor Kathleen Blanco (known here as ''Mee Maw") one of America's three worst governors. She did appoint a blue-ribbon Louisiana Recovery Authority after Mayor C. Ray Nagin appointed his Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the two ventures encompassing some 35 experts. Nagin got the Urban Land Institute, a Washington think tank financed by real estate developers, to produce a sweeping design for a ''new" city with parks supplanting dead houses and medium-rise buildings on dry ground.

Beyond the fairness issues, how to pay for any plan?

Nagin's angry criticism of Washington during the flood softened into a lack of urgency after dinners with Bush. The detached mayor vacationed in sunny Jamaica over Thanksgiving with his wife and children, who have been staying in Texas.

Our public school system, once mired in corruption, is being dismantled. A charter-school movement of parents seeking grassroots involvement has won support of the Legislature.

The old city was 67 percent African-American with a quarter of those at poverty level. Violent crime has plummeted; the new city is much whiter. Academics say that when masses of poor folk leave, they're unlikely to return. Optimists here who say ''Now we can get it right" (read: all the culture, but better schools and infrastructure) ignore housing for workers at the hotels and restaurants on which tourism thrived.

Are we in the country that put men on the moon?

Jason Berry, a native New Orleanian, is the author of ''Up From the Cradle of Jazz," ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation," and ''Vows of Silence."

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