A FEDERAL commitment to spend $2.5 billion to restructure levees and flood walls surrounding New Orleans is a welcome, if belated, development in the rebuilding of that hurricane-ravaged city.
While the decision does not directly address the wisdom of reconstructing a metropolitan area that lies mostly below sea level, it does allow New Orleanians to get on with their lives by setting ground rules for rebuilding homes and applying for insurance.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina roared over the Gulf Coast in late August, the region has suffered from a reluctance by federal officials to display much of a sense of urgency toward the massive reconstruction necessary after the worse natural disaster in U.S. history.
Now that the commitment has been given by the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, the task of President Bush will be to push for prompt approval of the funding from a Congress that has shown a short-sighted tendency to nitpick over Katrina relief.
Under the latest plan, the levees and flood walls, key sections of which were breached by the hurricane's backwash, will be structured to withstand a 100-year flood, generally thought to be the most extreme calamity Mother Nature might present.
More than 30 miles of concrete flood walls, some of which were undermined by the flood, will be torn out and rebuilt with more secure anchoring systems and aprons to prevent erosion of the levees on which they stand. Under new federal guidelines, new homes within the area will have to stand at least three feet off the ground to protect against nuisance flooding.
The guidelines, which don't apply to existing homes or those which incurred less than 50 percent damage, also ease concern among residents that they might not be allowed to rebuild in some of the lowest and most heavily damaged neighborhoods.
This is a calculated risk, of course, and one that may not be popular with those who believe that putting new housing in low-lying areas would be an invitation to future disasters. It is, however, probably necessary, given the magnitude of the damage inflicted on New Orleans, particularly to scores of homes of its many low-income residents.
If there is a flaw in the FEMA plan, it is that the state of Louisiana, already hurt financially by the recovery effort, might be required to ante up part of the $2.5 billion, perhaps up to $900 million. Previous aid packages pledged by Congress had no such stipulation, and this one should be no different.
When hurricanes have wreaked havoc on the east coast, Florida, and Texas, the federal government has responded generously and in an expedited fashion. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast deserve no less.