Doomsday still looms

Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, is the author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

New Orleans reminds me of a character in a Bruce Springsteen song who constantly takes two steps forward and one big step back. Clearly the crime index is off the charts, and the old-way politics of corruption is crippling the rebuild. Consider this: Since the first anniversary last August, Rep. Bill Jefferson has been indicted by the FBI on 16 counts, Sen. David Vitter has been linked to a prostitution service, City Councilman Oliver Thomas resigned after admitting to accepting huge bribes, and Mayor Ray Nagin has called murder the Big Easy’s “brand.” Need I go on?

Still, slow improvement is self-evident in many New Orleans neighborhoods. But the disturbing question about whether to build a new Category 5 levee system -- estimated to cost about $40 billion -- is no longer on the front burner of our national discourse. Americans are burying their heads in the sand on this issue, and the media are accommodating them. The coastal erosion problem in Louisiana remains very real. Daily, the Gulf of Mexico is getting closer to the city’s gates. Doomsday looms.

Yet there is a bright spot on this anniversary: Mississippi. Watching towns like Bay St. Louis and Gulfport rebuild has been inspiring. Fueled by the Biloxi casino boom and community spirit, the Gulf Coast is half-back. What a difference shrewd politicians make. Gov. Haley Barbour, keenly aware of President Bush’s shortcomings, has managed to both circumvent and massage Washington for money. His Governor’s Commission of Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal -- created two years ago -- is now paying off huge dividends for the state.