TOLEDO motorists get sorely bent out of shape when the drive across the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge is obstructed and delayed, as it has been intermittently for so long. But imagine what it's been like down on the Gulf Coast, where the loss of a highway bridge to Hurricane Katrina separated adjacent Mississippi cities for the better part of three long years.
Little wonder that the residents of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian breathed sighs of relief and celebrated recently when a new $267 million span was opened, closing a two-mile gap created by the storm's savage fury in August, 2005.
The bridge was constructed in only 10 months, half the expected schedule. In the meantime, commuters had to take a 45-minute detour north to Interstate 10 to get to the other side of St. Louis Bay. Businesses suffered from the isolation, as did the spirit of local residents.
The opening, which comes at the beginning of another hurricane season, is "major, psychologically," a restaurant owner told the New York Times. "It just feels like we're moving, making progress, we're going forward."
But not fast enough.
While rebuilding of the bay bridge represents a veritable triumph of efficiency for a government project, and its completion is a welcome event, it should not overshadow the fact that recovery for much of the Gulf Coast region has been snail slow.
President Bush promised a massive and prompt federal reconstruction effort for nearby New Orleans, but his pledge has been scarcely given lip service, much less fulfilled.
In Bay St. Louis, where the 30-foot storm surge swept away about half the homes, the mayor is still living in a trailer. City Hall remains vacant. Property and sales tax revenue plunged, making the cleanup more difficult. To the east in Pass Christian, the situation is reported to be no better in many respects.
What has made the recovery bearable is the enduring optimism and spirit of resiliance that seems to infect those communities hit hardest by the storm.
The hard lesson of Katrina, though, is the realization that Americans cannot necessarily expect their federal government either to rescue them from nature's peril or to provide the resources to repair the damage once the storm is past.
It's a tough lesson, one that will be sinking in for many years to come.
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