We're headed to the Gulf Coast

Instituter Elena Everett and I are headed down to Louisiana and Mississippi this week for a first-hand look at the rebuilding process in the post-hurricane Gulf, as part of our coverage for Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

First stop will be be New Orleans, talking to leaders and activists about what's happening "on the ground" and the political landscape. Then we'll be in Jackson, MS for Friday's "Survivor's General Assembly," organized by the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. Then it'll be back to NOLA to cover the December 10 "March on New Orleans." (For more about the Assembly and March, visit here.)

If you can, come on down -- and if you'll be there, drop us a line, it would be great to catch up.

It's becoming clearer each day that what happens in the Gulf will have major national implications. The post-hurricane rebuilding process is not only important to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are still hanging by a thread.

But the Gulf's future should also be at the top of our NATIONAL agenda. Washington failed the people of Louisiana and Mississippi (and Alabama and Texas) once, after the disasterous crisis response after the hurricanes. Now it's failing them again, by refusing to make any commitment to investing in the region's future:

Three months after Hurricane Katrina, we know that damage is enormous. We know that it will cost billions of dollars to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. What we don't know is where the money will come from.

Louisiana's congressional delegation introduced legislation in September calling for a $212 billion federally funded rebuilding effort; fiscal conservatives scotched the proposal.

Even a more modest request for $32 billion to strengthen Louisiana's flood defenses so they could withstand a Category 5 hurricane - the current standard is Category 3 - has drawn a tepid response from the Bush administration.

I know Bush has other things on his mind, but this wilfull lack of leadership is all too similar to the deadly negligence Gulf residents suffered after Katrina hit. More evidence of the administration's failed response came out in the 100,000 pages of memo, emails and phone logs Gov. Kathleen Blanco has handed over to Congress:

Among those documents are the back-and-forth communications between Blanco's office and the White House, starting with a letter Blanco sent
President Bush a day before the hurricane hit.

"I have determined that this incident will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance will be necessary," Blanco wrote.

Three days after the storm, Blanco wrote Bush asking that the 256th Louisiana National Guard Brigade be sent home from
Iraq to help. The governor also asked for more generators, medicine, health care workers and mortuaries.

Five days later, Bush assistant Maggie Grant e-mailed Blanco aide Paine Gowen to say that the White House did not receive the letter.

"We found it on the governor's Web site but we need 'an original,' for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making," Grant wrote. "We are on the job but appreciate your help with a technical request. Tnx!"

Leaders in Washington still insist they're "on the job," but the reality is that the Gulf is being utterly abandoned.

The rebuilding of the Gulf can't happen without federal leadership. Local leaders and grassroots activists are striving mightily to turn things around, but the money isn't there for them to do it by themselves.

So the post-Katrina South remains a test, for both political parties: Why the lack of leadership to make sure the Gulf isn't forgotten? What does that say about the priorities of our national leaders? It's also a test for the public: Will people realize that it will take a national response to turn Washington around, and demand better?

We're hoping that through fact-finding trips like these and projects like Reconstruction Watch, we can not only promote a more open and accountable rebuilding of the Gulf. We also hope that it will help keep Katrina on the national radar, where the decisions will be made that will shape the region's future.