Hurricane Katrina: Five years on, New Orleans's problems have gone national

What Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans – government failures, a hollowed-out housing market, and big federal bailouts – is now understood by the rest of America.

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is an occasion to think of the hurricane and its aftermath as a singular event, and in many ways, the storm and its consequences were, in fact, unique.

But five years after a hurricane that ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the storm seems less like an aberration and more like a prelude to themes that have continued to shake our national life far from the shores of the Gulf Coast.

Overnight, Katrina left thousands of homeowners with property that was worth much less than they owed on it. Back in 2005, the thought of such a phenomenon seemed surreal, a stark blemish in an otherwise booming real estate market across the country.

But in the wake of a subsequent global recession – and a meltdown in the housing sector – homeowners throughout the United States have felt an eerily similar reversal of circumstances.

'Quaint' bailout

The profound losses of Katrina created the rationale for sweeping federal investment in the recovery. By one estimate, the hurricane cost the federal government about $114 billion. That kind of spending didn't come without its critics. In 2005, the prospect of using so many tax dollars from Washington for economic rehabilitation struck many detractors as government overreach.

In light of more recent government bailouts, the worries about Katrina's price tag now seem almost quaint. The Obama administration committed $110 billion alone to help the recession-stressed American car industry. The federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, established to prop up failing financial institutions, exposed taxpayers to $700 billion in obligations (though the actual cost so far is just $66 billion). Last year, Congress approved a $787 billion stimulus bill for the nation's economy. By comparison, the Katrina recovery now looks like a bargain.

The aftermath of Katrina also prompted widespread cynicism about the effectiveness of large and important national institutions. As the levees failed in New Orleans and victims languished for days, many Americans wondered how so much apparent expertise in the halls of government had come to so little.

That theme, too, has had its counterpart in the postmortems being done on the nation's financial industry, as well as the BP oil spill that's unfolded in Katrina's old stomping grounds.

Pray hard

Today, many Americans are still grappling in a direct and personal way with realities that first confronted those of us in Katrina's path on Aug. 29, 2005.

Namely, that government is not always prepared for crisis and is sometimes painfully flawed in responding to it. Also, that large problems often demand large and expensive solutions. And finally, that in the absence of perfection among those who lead us, all that one can sometimes do is improvise, pray hard, and hope for the best.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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