NEW ORLEANS - America sometimes has the attention span of a gypsy moth, and the nation this week is heartsick over the raging floods that drowned the heart of the Midwest and made tens of thousands of Americans homeless.

Is anyone thinking about New Orleans?

Some of us are, but soggy Iowa is taking its turn in the national spotlight of catastrophe.

Will America's breadbasket be fixed faster than America's party town, brought to its knees by water-overwhelmed levees in August 2005?

Rob Couhig, 59, thinks it will, partly because of Midwestern self-reliance. He thinks they're not about to sit around, wringing their hands, waiting for the government to bail them out, which, he says, sadly, was what his beloved home town did - and still does.

A no-nonsense corporate lawyer in an open-collar white shirt, Couhig is a commissioner on the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and is thought by some to be one of the smartest men in town.

One who believes this to be true is 65-year-old Garland Robinette, a former TV anchor and now popular talk-show host on WWL-AM, which earned its bones by remaining on the air with emergency information, as did WWL-TV, after other TV stations drowned and the local paper couldn't get delivered.

Like Couhig, Robinette is sour on government. "The people of Iowa will learn the Amish had it right - do it yourself. But New Orleans can't do it alone."

While the city's French Quarter is still lively, and bawdy, the Big Easy has an empty, eerie feel to it. The population has dropped from 455,000 pre-Katrina to less than 300,000, but no one is sure of the number.

It's hard to think that the Midwest won't get faster aid than sultry New Orleans, which calls itself "The City That Care Forgot."

I asked Couhig and Robinette if the city could still be called that. Each said the same thing:

"It's more like, 'The City That Forgot to Care.' "

To put the foot-dragging, incompetence and bungling - city, state, federal - in context, Katrina hit in August 2005, four months after the ground-breaking of the 58-story Comcast Center. That glass-sheathed behemoth opened earlier this month while big patches of New Orleans remain rubble.

There are Americans who have been living in emergency trailers here for almost three years, and they're the lucky ones. Others have been forced to permanently relocate to other cities, and a few are hunkered down in tents or cardboard boxes under Interstate 10 that snakes through the city.

The 17th Street canal levee, rebuilt after the storm, is leaking, and last week it was learned that FEMA gave away $85 million of donated clothes and household supplies because, it was said, a state agency rejected them. You get the sense that the people running the show ought to be fitted for red noses, really big shoes and locked in the clown car.

While New Orleans, and other parts of the Bayou State, fester, the Louisiana Legislature had an idea. It just decided to triple its pay.

When citizens, editorial writers, talk-show hosts, columnists and others started to howl, the politicians backed down.

They're only going to double their pay now.

To paraphrase President Bush's salute to his then-FEMA director, "Legislators, you're doing a heckuva job."

Coming up on the third anniversary of the Katrina-caused flooding, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists held its annual conference in New Orleans over the weekend, to help refocus America's attention on a job left unfinished. That's one reason I did two columns last week on the efforts of hard-working volunteers who showed the finest kind of brotherly love - and patriotism.

The columnists' hotel, the old, graceful Monteleone, is on Royal Street in the world-famous French Quarter, on high ground a few blocks from the Mississippi. During the flood, the Quarter got its feet wet, but nothing much worse. Had the French Quarter gone under, you could stick a fork in New Orleans. It'd be deader than a crawfish on a plate at Brennan's.

Talk-show host Robinette, a Cajun who devoted countless on-air hours to the danger of flooding before and after it happened, says that the city's high ground, which was spared the flooding, exactly matched the boundaries of the original city. "If the engineers of 200 years ago knew those areas, you shouldn't build there."

This came in response to me asking if it is wise to rebuild the entire city.

To the same question, lawyer Couhig gave me an answer as long as a Ryan Howard home run, but didn't directly answer.

"You're saying 'no,' aren't you?" I asked.

Couhig didn't reply, but he smiled. I guess there are some things that you don't want to be quoted as passing through your lips.

I know it's tough to tell people, "You can't go back to your homes," because we know they will flood again. The same might be said for Midwesterners who live in the flood plain, or our neighbors who build along the Jersey Shore.

Allowing people to return to a known danger zone matches Einstein's classic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

And yet, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, 47, told me that if the levees are rebuilt to provide 500-year protection, the city should be entirely rebuilt. "The question is, do we have the resources to rebuild all of the city at the same time?"

By "we" he means the U.S. government, which is largely responsible for the disaster and the shameful response to it.

Much-criticized Mayor Ray Nagin, 52, told a Friday lunch meeting of the NSNC that it was his call to redevelop the entire "footprint" of the city, claimed that more than 80 percent of residents have returned (a figure disputed by many) and that most people are choosing to move to higher ground but "some people are taking a risk" by returning to the low-lying areas that will likely get swamped in the event of another Katrina-like hurricane.

Robinette blames the 2005 catastrophe on the Army Corps of Engineers - which knew that the levees wouldn't hold in a really major storm - and Congress for not wanting to hear about it.

Then a TV anchor, Robinette did documentaries every year from 1970 to 1986, he says, on the loss of the wetlands, which diminish the impact of hurricanes. The Times-Picayune did numerous stories on the danger of the loss of wetlands, the sorry state of the levees and the sea walls. The people were warned.

No one heeded the warnings, including the people of New Orleans. That's what Couhig and Robinette meant by "the city that forgot to care."

Pre-Katrina New Orleans refused to change, says Couhig. It's a little different today, with new residents (mostly in construction) with new thinking arriving from around the country.

Robinette sees increased civic involvement today, but is less upbeat than Couhig.

"New Orleans is like your beautiful sister who refuses to read a book. I love her, but she could be so much more." *

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Stu Bykofsky's Monday column implied all four New Orleans TV stations were knocked off the air by Hurricane Katrina. In fact, WWL-TV remained on the air and broadcast continuously.