Every single purchase during a natural-disaster-relief operation is billed to a four-digit federal code. In accounting terms, Hurricane Charley was known as 1539 and 1543. Ivan had nine codes, starting with 1548, one for each state affected by the emergency. Hurricane Katrina is such a vast and expensive undertaking that it has been assigned 45 separate codes: 1602 for Florida, 1603 for Louisiana, 1604 for Mississippi and 1605 for Alabama, plus one for every state taking in evacuees. For months and perhaps years to come, those codes will be used by the Federal Government to pay for, and keep track of, the billions of dollars required to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will end up reimbursing the Coast Guard for fuel used to power helicopters in rescue missions, the city of New Orleans for the overtime of its police and fire departments, and Houston for the costs of housing evacuees in the Astrodome.
The receipts for such expenses during the first couple of weeks of Katrina relief have been collected. The tab so far: $9.8 billion, including $1.8 billion for the reimbursement of lodging expenses and $1.3 billion on trailers and temporary homes. And that is just the beginning. Shortly after Labor Day, the Bush Administration asked Congress to sign off on an additional $51.8 billion--roughly what the U.S. spends in Iraq each year. Unlike the Persian Gulf, though, the funds earmarked for the Gulf Coast were expected to last a month or two. House Republicans were so spooked by the size of the request that the White House dispatched Budget Director Joshua Bolten to Capitol Hill on Sept. 7, where he made an unusual, late-evening appeal to nearly 200 skeptical Representatives.
One can only imagine what they were thinking as the President addressed the nation about a week later from an otherwise desolate Jackson Square in New Orleans' soon-to-reopen French Quarter. The man who said during his re-election campaign that "government is limited in its capacity to heal and help" spoke in bold terms about "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," proposing a tax-advantaged Gulf Opportunity Zone to create jobs, worker-recovery accounts to help evacuees pay for job training and child care, and even an Urban Homesteading Act to let some low-income victims of Katrina build homes on cheap federal land. Think of it as George W. Bush's New Deal.
As money flows into the Gulf States faster than water is pumped out of New Orleans, it's safe to say the recovery from Hurricane Katrina has entered a new phase: the financial free-for-all. The President was careful not to get specific about what the "generosity of a united country" might cost, but economists estimate that Katrina's final price tag could easily top $200 billion. While frugal Republicans like Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Arizona Representative Jeff Flake (one of 11 members of the House to vote against the President's relief bill) instinctively called for budget cuts to offset the cost of the recovery effort, few cuts seem politically realistic. And much to the dismay of many of his colleagues, House majority leader Tom DeLay proclaimed that the G.O.P. had already trimmed most of the fat from the federal budget.