It is now possible to see more accurately the dimensions of the damage wrought by Katrina on New Orleans. There were many fewer deaths than people feared -- far fewer than Mayor Ray Nagin's guess of 10,000 -- and evidently many more people managed to evacuate than we thought. Not all the horrors reported at the Superdome and the Convention Center actually happened. The water still covering much of the city is not as toxic as was feared.
By no means all the worst damage was done to black neighborhoods: The 17th Street levee break first flooded the heavily white Lakeview area west of City Park (the only part of New Orleans that voted for George W. Bush in 2004), and there was huge devastation not only in the heavily black Lower Ninth Ward, but also in heavily white St. Bernard Parish just to the east.
It is possible also to get a better gauge of the mistakes made by the local, state and federal governments. The mainstream media have been concentrating on blaming the Bush administration, and in fact FEMA seems to have operated without the required sense of urgency and with an overpunctilious regard for red tape. But others erred, too.
As one New Orleans evacuee in the Houston Astrodome told an ABC News reporter after George W. Bush's speech in Jackson Square, "I feel like our city and our state government should have been there before the federal government was called in. They should have been on their jobs. ... I mean, they had RTA buses, Greyhound buses, school buses that was just sitting there going underwater when they could have been evacuating people."
It's also obvious that much of the most effective aid came from the private sector. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were there quickly with food and water, though the Louisiana state government barred them from the Superdome. Wal-Mart donated $17 million and used its amazing distribution systems to send down the things that were needed, and had 111 of its 126 closed stores open within days.
In Jackson Square, Bush found his voice for the first time since the levees broke. He described the people he had seen on the ground and the recovery work that had already been done. He promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast and re-engineer New Orleans, and added -- wisely, in view of Louisiana's heritage of corruption -- that inspectors general would oversee the spending.
But despite the Great Society tone of his speech, he did not promise another Great Society. He proposed instead a Gulf Opportunity Zone -- presumably, a tax-free status to encourage investment. He called for Worker Recovery Accounts of up to $5,000 for job training, education and childcare. He proposed an Urban Homesteading Act on federal lands.
Bush's liberal critics have been hoping that the Katrina disaster would increase support for big government, and they have a point when they say that there are some things only government must do and that it -- or they: local, state, federal -- must do them well. Bush's proposals use government differently. Like the GI Bill of Rights and the no-down-payment VA home mortgages of Franklin Roosevelt, Bush's Worker Recovery Accounts and Urban Homesteading would help people out, but only those who in turn do something to lift themselves up. And his Opportunity Zone turns on its head the liberal notion that the most effective way to help the poor and helpless is to tax everyone else heavily and hand out money to those in need.
Lower taxes and less bureaucracy, Bush is saying, will enable people in the private sector to build the kind of self-propelling economy that offers everyone a chance out of poverty.
How effective these ideas will be remains to be seen. Some large numbers of evacuees will not return to New Orleans -- many seem to be finding more opportunity than they ever had there in Houston or Dallas. But the response to Katrina does show that it is unwise to place all your reliance on a supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing government.
Government could have performed better than it did this time, but even if it had, the private sector, with the dedication of the nonprofits and the suppleness of a Wal-Mart, would have been necessary to an optimum response. As FDR offered veterans six decades ago, so Bush today is offering not handouts, but a hand up. The GIs then did much better than expected. Perhaps the Gulf Coast and New Orleans victims of Katrina will, too.