President Bush headed to the Gulf Coast this week to check on the status of the this region’s recovery, eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina struck shores. Bush probably needs the refresher: He hasn’t set foot in the still-hobbled region in six months, and didn’t even mention the Gulf in his January State of the Union address.

But when asked to single out what is most to blame for the ongoing crisis in the Gulf Coast, many Gulf residents will quickly point to Washington. It was ineffectual levees–built and overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers–that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, wiping out thousands of homes, hospitals and schools. It was the botched emergency response, “coordinated” by now-disgraced FEMA officials in DC, that contributed to the deaths of hundreds trying to flee the storm.

Now, a year and half after Katrina, a failed policy at the highest levels of government is to blame for the “second tragedy” of Katrina: a stalled recovery that keeps thousands of Gulf residents in limbo and has left neighborhoods from the Lower Ninth Ward to East Biloxi looking like the storm hit yesterday. And it will take drastic change in national policy if the Gulf is to have a more vibrant future.

When Bush comes to New Orleans, many will remember the pledge he delivered two weeks after the storm, standing in Jackson Square, the St. Louis Cathedral shining behind him: “Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives,” he said. “And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.”

But much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast haven’t come back. Indeed, for thousands of people, the Katrina disaster never ended.

More than 100,000 displaced Gulf residents still live in FEMA trailers or receive “temporary” housing aid. Children are put on waiting lists to attend public schools, which are struggling to hire teachers. Hospitals and clinics across the coast are still shuttered.

As TV crews descended on New Orleans for Mardi Gras last week, city officials tried to be upbeat. But Bill Quigley, a public-interest lawyer in New Orleans, said the reality was visible to anyone who wandered out of the French Quarter: “Visitors to New Orleans can still stay in fine hotels and dine at great restaurants,” he said. “But less than a five-minute drive away lie miles of devastated neighborhoods that shock visitors. Locals call it ‘the Grand Canyon effect’–you know about it, you have seen it on TV, but when you see it in person it can take your breath away.”

If Bush ventures beyond his New Orleans photo op–at a charter school, while 44 percent of public schools remain closed–he’ll see the tragedy that has kept tens of thousands of the Gulf’s people from returning home and has made day-to-day life for many in the region a struggle for survival.

The scale of the problem demands bold, national action. But by almost any measure, Washington has failed so far to meet the challenge–shattering many people’s faith in the federal government’s ability to help those in desperate need.

The newly elected Democratic Congress has promised to right the wrongs in the Gulf, but people in the Gulf are skeptical. Wasn’t it Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, who waited six months after one of the country’s biggest disasters to come visit the region? Katrina also hasn’t been a big policy issue in the new Congress, but Democrats say that will change.

“For our future to be strong, all of our communities must be strong,” Pelosi said in a January 19 speech at the National Press Club. “It says in the Bible, “when there is injustice in the world, the poorest people, those with the least power, are injured the most.” That was certainly true for the people of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster compounded by a man-made disaster. It is now eighteen months past time to get our response right.”

There is plenty the new Congress and the President can do to help revive the Gulf Coast. In a report released this week, “A New Agenda for the Gulf Coast,” the Institute for Southern Studies Gulf Coast Reconsruction Watch offers dozens of practical proposals–put forward by Gulf leaders and policy experts–that Washington can act on now to put the region back on the road to recovery. For example:

• Lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest barriers. Washington can help Gulf residents get back into homes by speeding up compensation to homeowners, extending aid to renters, cracking down on insurance companies that deny coverage and reversing the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to raze 5,000 barely damaged public housing units in New Orleans.

• Plans to repair Louisiana’s broken healthcare system through a Medicaid waiver and Medicare pilot project have been delayed. Washington can help by reviving these efforts, by linking displaced patients with care and injecting resources into community-based clinics.

• The region’s economy is still hobbling and good jobs are scarce, yet efforts like the Bush Administration’s “Gulf Opportunity Zones” have been scattershot and ineffective. Attaching accountability standards to federal subsidies–as well as launching a Gulf Civic Works Program to hire 100,000 displaced people to rebuild their own communities–could transform the region.

• The 2007 hurricane season is less than four months away, but the Gulf’s storm defenses are still inadequate. Watchdogs are calling for prompt building of levees that can withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and for Congress to create a commission to investigate levee failures and cancel wasteful projects like the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal, which helped magnify Katrina’s intensity.

The solutions are there, and it’s not too late. All that’s required is for national leaders to live up to their promises and responsibility to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Until they see action, the region’s people will keep holding signs like the one seen at Mardi Gras last week: “Washington, throw us something!”