Mardis Gras gratitude

Recovery in the Katrina-devastated Gulf region is like watching a child grow. Stay home, and it's hard to see change. Leave and return, and the difference is noticeable. Those who returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this week must have observed that after six months, the city can at least hold up its head.

That's what the costumes and beads were about this year: A celebration of the fact that, while the Big Easy may not be sauntering yet, it's no longer lying helplessly on its back after the most destructive natural disaster in US history.

Given the extent of the unprecedented ruin, and the inexperience of public officials in rebuilding a major city, it's remarkable that New Orleans has come this far:

The tourism core - the French Quarter and the plantation-style homes of Uptown - is up and running, and so is famed chef Paul Prudhomme.

Key companies, such as Shell Exploration & Production Co., are returning, joining Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. About 70 percent of the more than 80,000 regional enterprises affected by Katrina are in business again, according to Greater New Orleans Inc.

Shipping activity has reached 100 percent of pre-Katrina levels in the Port of New Orleans.

The city's public school system, one of the worst in the country, is experiencing somewhat of a rebirth. While only 20 of the city's 128 public schools are open, almost all of them are charter schools. First indications are that this decentralized, flexible approach is an improvement.

And finally, rebuilding plans are taking shape. The mayoral commission's plan is expected to be approved by the state within weeks, and while not without detractors, it at least amounts to a decision - so necessary in a suffocating wait-and-see atmosphere. At the same time, rebuilding financing is shaping up as the White House and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana harmonize over grants and loans that would encourage homeowners, especially low- income people, to rebuild - not simply cash out and never return.

Still, as those in the Big Uneasy themselves point out, Mardi Gras was also meant to showcase how much help is still needed. Only 189,000 of the 500,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned, and experts predict a smaller, whiter New Orleans. Much of the city looks like a wasteland, housing is scarce, and more than 220,000 jobs were lost.

A study by the Washington Post reveals that two-thirds of the $3.27 billion raised by nonprofits for Katrina survivors in the Gulf has been spent. Americans must keep their generosity flowing for the long haul.

As for rebuilding, the federal government should make sure the city can withstand a Category 3 hurricane by June and speed up a study of the costs and tradeoffs for building a protection system against a Category 5 hurricane - the study isn't due until the end of 2007. Washington needs to make a difficult decision soon on the level of protection in order to help the city determine its future.

Meanwhile, a slew of reports are reviewing what went wrong in responding to Katrina. Officials at all levels should learn a lesson from the government reaction soon after Katrina and prepare better for any future massive disasters.

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