The more I read or hear about Hurricane Katrina relief, the more questions and concerns I have.Yesterday, President Bush and others vowed again to rebuild New Orleans. But does that make any sense? There is no way to simply rebuild the city so as to make sure that such a disaster does not happen again. Sure, we could make the buildings capable of withstanding the fury of a Category 5 hurricane, but that wouldn’t make them impervious to flooding. In fact, many of the buildings in New Orleans are still standing. They just happen to be filled with water.
So, yeah, we could rebuild the buildings, but the chances that they would flood again are quite good. Unfortunately, channelization of the Mississippi by the Army Corps of Engineers has destroyed most of the wetlands that provided a natural barrier against flooding. Almost nothing man builds as a replacement for Mother Nature works as well as her designs. The levees that surround New Orleans are a prime example. The wetlands provided a natural first line of defense against flooding and hurricanes by absorbing massive quantities of water like a huge sponge. A combination of wetlands and levees might have saved the city–a defense in depth that needs to be rebuilt before the city is submerged again. But doing so will be incredibly complicated, expensive, and slow. And how will people take it if the Federal and state governments spend millions upon millions of dollars restoring swampland primarily inhabited by gators, slop, and mosquitos? Do you honestly think they will find that to be a good use of money, especially once someone characterizes it like I just did? As a politician, it’s probably hard to run for office once you’ve been characterized as pro-swamp and pro-gator while your citizens live in refugee camps.
That leaves the city relying on things that people can see and easily understand: levees. Relying on levees alone, without restoring the wetlands, returns the city back to a single-point-of-failure model. Even the Corps of Engineers acknowledges the fact that living behind levees pretty much guarantees that, at some point, you will pay the price. “‘Levees fail. People need to realize when they make a decision to live behind levees that there’s a risk that comes with that,’ said Jason Fanselau of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento office. ‘They can fail on warm sunny days like we saw last year with Jones Tract (San Joaquin County), and they can fail with huge wet storms like this week’ along the Gulf of Mexico.” So, the levees get rebuilt, but taller this time.
Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to prevent the city from flooding again. With most of the city below sea level, and now behind gi-hugic levees, it will simply be a matter of time until the whole place is one giant swimming pool again.
So, maybe the vast majority of city should be raised up. Again, it would be obscenely expensive, but maybe the city needs to be built 12 feet higher than it currently is. That would at least get the vast majority of it 6 feet above sea level. To do so, however, would require an exercise in earth movement that I cannot begin to comprehend. It would take billions of loads of fill to raise the city up. And, doing so might mean that all of the infrastructure currently underground is abandoned. Again, can you even begin to calculate how much it might cost to install all the utilities for a major American city, from scratch, at once? But, if we don’t raise the city up above sea level, then what’s to stop it from flooding like this again?
If we step back a bit from the geographic problems, we can see some other major problems. First, most of the city’s structures will need to be razed once the flood waters recede. Most building contractors worth their salt are as busy as they want to be. It’s not like there are several million building contractors and construction workers just sitting around, waiting to first raze, and then rebuild an American city from scratch. All those people have to come from somewhere. And if they don’t, who is going to rebuild? Someone suggested to me that the residents of the city will do the majority of the building. Sarah responded, “That’s how Third World shanty towns get built.” And that’s very true. Just because there are thousands and thousands of people sitting around with nothing to do, it doesn’t make them qualified to frame a house, plumb a bathroom, or install electrical outlets. They may be able to perform some small subset of those tasks, but most likely they’d just be in the way of the people doing the real work of rebuilding.
Some people have suggested that we could ship them manufactured homes. Yeah, some very small percentage of them. But where are the thousands of idled manufactured homes factories that were just waiting to crank out several thousand manufactured homes in just a couple of months? They don’t exist.
Even if they did exist, where will the building materials come from? Most likely the building materials that comprise the current buildings will not be salvageable due to mold. So, billions of board feet of lumber will be needed; plywood sheets beyond count will be ordered; shingles, pipes, electrical wire, windows, gutters, siding, paint, and all the other bits that go into a home will all have to come from somewhere. And, while I have no doubt they can be procured eventually, it will take some time for manufacturing to provide them.
Another problem is that factories simply won’t be willing to expand rapidly to provide all this stuff. After all, what do they do with it once New Orleans, Mississippi’s shoreline, and the like are rebuilt? It doesn’t do them much good to invest huge quantities of money in equipment, buildings, and employee training only to run out of markets in a matter of months or a year. Then they’re sitting on this huge production capacity which isn’t useful to them and is costing them money in the form of upkeep.
Looking at the human factors, there are equally difficult problems. What on Earth are the 25,000 people in the Astrodome going to do with themselves? What about the hundreds of thousands of other people scattered across the US who fled from Katrina? It’s not like they can all run down to the grocery store and get part-time jobs bagging groceries to earn money for a couple of months. The nation has no shortage of people who work part-time for low wages; they’re called teenagers and they’re everywhere. Maybe the government will be forced to create a Civilian Conservation Corps-inspired agency to employ these people and give them something to do with their time. Get them started on projects where manpower is key and necessarily skills can be taught. Clean up parks and shorelines; paint civic buildings; build bicycle and hiking trails; sweep streets; create civic gardens. All of these tasks are the sort that require strong backs, a will to work, and some very basic know-how.
How will the people in the Astrodome get around Houston, a city notorious for its car-centric lifestyle? They don’t have cars so they certainly can’t drive. Who would sell them a car? They don’t have money and jobs. How will people stuck in small towns without any public transit infrastructure get around? What money will these people spend? How will they keep from going crazy or getting violent for months on end with nothing to do? Are they all going to sit around learning how to knit so they can knit some new curtains for their homes which don’t exist? There are already towns in Louisiana that have doubled in size as refugees wash up on their shores. How will the infrastructure of those towns handle the sudden doubling of need for clean water and sewage disposal?
It is clear that there are very real and very serious questions facing not just New Orleans and Mississippi, but the United States as a whole. These questions go far, far beyond getting people out of New Orleans. If we all just sit around, thinking, “Well, we got them to the Astrodome, now back to American Idol,” the United States will fail this very real and very serious challenge.