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What the Gulf needs

October 13, 2005

THE DEVASTATION CAUSED by hurricanes Katrina and Rita will probably lead to the largest disaster relief and reconstruction effort in U.S. history. The scale is so vast, and so many federal agencies are involved, that the work threatens to become an uncoordinated, corruption-plagued morass unless the Bush administration takes a different approach to the task.

President Bush has emphasized the need for local officials to call the shots in the reconstruction. But federal taxpayers need reassurance that their money is being well spent, and a central clearinghouse for federal resources is needed to arbitrate between competing priorities. Moreover, leaders of the affected communities need Washington to be a more effective partner. Instead of having multiple bureaucracies offering an array of housing, transportation, flood control and other programs, the federal government needs a single, coordinated response with one person clearly in charge.

In other words, Washington needs a Gulf Coast reconstruction czar.

The point is to give the reconstruction effort more insulation from politics, more accountability and better organization. Instead of leaving funding decisions to lawmakers in Washington -- a process that often sends money to projects with the best-connected lobbyists, not the greatest need -- the reconstruction needs an honest broker making sure the highest priorities are funded.

A czar can't guarantee that New Orleans will recover quickly, or that other areas wrecked by the back-to-back hurricanes will be made whole. After all, the success of the reconstruction efforts will depend in large measure on the blueprints laid out by local and state officials, as well as the efforts made by residents and businesses.

To assuage concerns about a federal takeover of the Gulf Coast, the person charged with this mission could work with a planning commission that includes local representatives.

By giving control over the federal relief budget to a respected administrator, Congress can slash red tape and hasten the restoration of key pieces of public infrastructure, such as highways and sewage systems. A recovery authority would also address one of the main complaints voiced by local businesses: the inability to compete for the billions of dollars in federal contracts. And a czar removed from the political process could make some of the tougher calls no politician wants to make -- such as telling residents a certain area shouldn't be rebuilt.

Not all the aid a czar could provide would be in the form of money. Just as important would be the technical expertise a czar could marshal to help local officials rebuild their communities and economies in ways less vulnerable to a natural disaster.

Lawmakers from both parties have suggested the creation of a reconstruction czar with the power to direct federal dollars, and Bush does not oppose the concept. The president should lead rather than follow by naming someone to the post. And he should resist his usual inclination to appoint a loyalist and select someone experienced in managing large organizations with multibillion-dollar budgets.

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