If knowledge is power, then it's time for New Orleanians to beef up for this holiday season. More and more lately, we're having to defend our city -- in phone conversations, chat rooms or at Thanksgiving dinner -- against those who argue that it's just not worth the effort (read: the price tag). In particular, we should expect that inevitable question from friends and family who live elsewhere: Why rebuild New Orleans, especially there?
Intended or not, it's a classic baiting question that makes us boil with anger and probably assume a defensive posture. To many, the question is ridiculous on its face, but its ramifications are so dire that the only natural reaction is a heated one.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Just as the national media continue to raise the question of New Orleans' viability and location, some very obvious (and occasionally startling) truths are emerging that easily quash such notions. So, as the holiday season progresses -- along with the next round of ridiculous questions -- this is a good time to provide our readers with some talking points:
• No matter how you slice it, Hurricane Katrina as it pertains to New Orleans was a man-made disaster, not a natural one. We suffered failures at the federal, state and local levels. Washington over the years turned a deaf ear to persistent calls from local officials for both better-designed levees and wetlands protection in the face of coastal erosion (part of which is due to man-made disruption). It also gutted the funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and put an incompetent and unqualified political appointee in charge after it was folded into (and marginalized within) the Department of Homeland Security. The feds then failed to respond expeditiously to the cries for help once the crisis was upon us.
If anyone asks, we don't need to move New Orleans; we need to move Washington to act.
• Some of the nation's greatest cities have been ripped apart by similar disasters and, while those were clearly natural disasters, the nation rallied behind them to rebuild -- on their original soil. We cannot recall any massive public demand to relocate San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 (3,000 to 6,000 dead, 225,000 to 300,000 homeless), or Galveston, Texas, after the hurricane of 1900 (anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 dead, and considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history), or the Miami metro area after Hurricane Andrew ($25 billion in damage, $1 billion in Louisiana alone). Only now do we hear the call to relocate. Why is that?
Furthermore, some of the world's great cities have decided to protect themselves better rather than move. Kobe, Japan, didn't give up after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 (5,100 deaths, 300,000 homeless, $100 billion in damage). The Netherlands designed an entirely new levee system after a North Sea storm in 1953 destroyed 50,000 homes and killed 1,900 people. The technology to protect New Orleans exists; all that's lacking is the political will.
• New Orleans isn't the only U.S. city vulnerable to nature's whim. According to The Weather Channel, a Category 3 hurricane could leave Long Island, N.Y. (population: 2.4 million) under 12 feet of water; a Category 4 hurricane could bring storm surges as high as 30 feet in Tampa Bay (population: 2.4 million); and other potential dangers remain for Miami, Galveston and Wilmington, N.C. Should they relocate now to avoid trouble?
• To date, the federal government has spent about $200 billion for the war and reconstruction in Iraq. While the war and its rationale continue to be debated, most Americans agree that it's important to rebuild Iraq --Êbecause we owe it to the Iraqi people and because it will help stabilize the region. Surely, then, the federal government owes south Louisiana a reconstruction effort that will stabilize our region.
• Virtually all of the skepticism about rebuilding New Orleans is grounded in awe at the sheer magnitude of the task at hand. We need levees and other forms of flood protection; temporary and long-term housing; money to pay off mortgages and prevent massive foreclosures; infusions of cash so that local and state governments don't close; grants for uninsured and underinsured homes and businesses; money for schools to rebuild; workers to do the heavy lifting -- and all that's just a start. On one hand, we need it all right away. Then again, it's going to be a marathon, not a sprint -- and that's a good thing. Rebuilding New Orleans won't bankrupt the nation. It will be a long-term investment that pays dividends for decades in oil and gas alone.
• Speaking of oil and gas, if the federal government would give Louisiana a fraction of the revenue from oil and gas that's produced off our coastline and shipped across our wetlands, we wouldn't need any of federal money. We could rebuild ourselves and tell FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and SBA to shove it. When oil and gas are produced in federal lands elsewhere, the states get a share. Why not Louisiana?
We hope you enjoy the holidays -- and the debate.