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Ask Auntie Pinko

September 15, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I admit that when I first heard Dennis Hastert say that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt, I was furious-who is he to decide, for one thing? But the more I read about the city and the engineering problems, the more problematic it sounds, even to me.

Is there a solution to this problem?

Texarkana, AR

Dear Walter,

One thing Auntie is most emphatically not is any kind of civil engineer. I can't give any kind of informed opinion or even speculation on the potential technical problems and solutions to rebuilding New Orleans. But I suspect that the real problems don't have very much to do with technical issues, anyway. The people of the Netherlands have solved engineering problems at least as formidable, so the technical capabilities do exist.

And given that fair-sized portions of the city were never flooded and sustained relatively minor damage, it seems highly unlikely that everyone will agree to just pack up and abandon the whole area and let the Mississippi mud reclaim it. The site will remain occupied. It will continue to be called "New Orleans." It will retain continuity with a long and eventful history. I daresay Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, drag revues, tours of antebellum mansions in the Garden District, jazz in all its forms, and other tourist attractions will revive quite quickly, along with the catering and hospitality industry jobs needed to support tourism.

But that doesn't address the heart of the matter: Will hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians ever be able to go "home" to the Big Easy?

Some will probably not want to. They may wish to forget and/or leave behind the memories of horror and loss. Some may begin intending to return, but as they get jobs, places to live, make new friends, etc., in their 'temporary' homes, those temporary homes may become permanent.

But a good many will want to return. Think about it. I don't know whether you were born and raised in Texarkana, Walter, but if you were, and some natural disaster (a series of killer tornados, perhaps?) wiped large swathes of the city off the map and forced you to relocate elsewhere for awhile, wouldn't you want to return? Wouldn't you want to look again at the "most photographed courthouse in America," visit Jim Bowie and Scott Joplin memorial sites, and (on a more personal note,) the place where your family lived when you were a child? The spot where you and your first sweetheart shared your first kiss? The pizza joint where you had that wild party once?

Even more important than these nostalgic impulses, though, is the thought of going back where people speak "your" language, where you share a common history-that hard-fought civic election, maybe, or the year they filmed the movie downtown and blocked traffic for two weeks. Where you know the local heroes and villains, and who is the "go-to" guy for this or that service or commodity. Where the local gossip makes sense because you know the names and families, and can share a story or two yourself.

When you've lost all of your material goods, intangible treasures like these can become immensely valuable, and thousands -maybe hundreds of thousands- of New Orleanians will want those treasures back, even if nothing remains of their physical possessions. The issue before us is the amount of resources we can and should commit to making it happen.

In the case of New Orleans this is a serious and difficult question because of those technical issues. There are several ways to address them, and none of those ways are cheap. It seems to Auntie that we have a choice between several alternatives:

  1. Commit the minimum amount possible to a broad-scale plan that sounds 'comprehensive,' build some new levees and reinforce the existing ones, build acres of cheap low-income housing that will deteriorate quickly, and face the whole problem again in a decade or two.
  2. Ignore the poor and working-class people and rebuild on a much smaller scale, committing modest resources to technical solutions for fewer people, but (potentially) people who can create jobs and provide economic dividends.
  3. Rebuild on a massive scale, using the most advanced technology and monitoring to ensure that everything is done right and graft and cronyism don't rob the efforts of their strength, and try to accommodate everyone with decent housing, jobs, industry, etc.
  4. Rebuild on a large-scale plan, but slowly, using lower-tech options, restoring wetlands and natural flood control patterns, and using livable space intensively but creatively over many decades.
  5. Cobble together a patchwork of unrelated 'projects' to restore this or that function/area based on what's likely to cost little or pay for itself or generate private-sector investment, and leave the city to "regrow" organically.

I'm sure there are other alternatives, as well, but these seem to be the most commonly-discussed options. Given the track record of Mr. Bush's Administration, I'm guessing we will probably end up with either (1), (2), or (5). My personal preference would be (4), but that might be too slow for all the New Orleanians who want to go home as soon as possible.

The big problem with (3) is cost, which would be overwhelming, especially in a time of soaring budget deficits. It would be impossible to do without radically restructuring the tax system, including repealing tax breaks for the wealthy, restoring the estate tax and capital gains taxes, and making large businesses pay their fair share of the burden. It doesn't seem likely to happen.

At the moment, I'm pinning my hopes to the various projects sponsored by Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit groups. With luck, they can demonstrate commitment and creativity, and offer the government some models for how to do things right. If we all pitch in and help, maybe we can shape a more positive direction for the future of New Orleans, and "laissez le bon temps reviens pour tout!"

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