Sunday, December 11, 2005

Death of an American City
New York Times, December 11, 2005

We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.

We said this wouldn't happen. President Bush said it wouldn't happen. He stood in Jackson Square and said, "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans." But it has been over three months since Hurricane Katrina struck and the city is in complete shambles.

There are many unanswered questions that will take years to work out, but one is make-or-break and needs to be dealt with immediately. It all boils down to the levee system. People will clear garbage, live in tents, work their fingers to the bone to reclaim homes and lives, but not if they don't believe they will be protected by more than patches to the same old system that failed during the deadly storm. Homeowners, businesses and insurance companies all need a commitment before they will stake their futures on the city.

At this moment the reconstruction is a rudderless ship. There is no effective leadership that we can identify. How many people could even name the president's liaison for the reconstruction effort, Donald Powell? Lawmakers need to understand that for New Orleans the words "pending in Congress" are a death warrant requiring no signature.

The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.

The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year's estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.

Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?

Losing a major American city.

"We'll not just rebuild, we'll build higher and better," President Bush said that night in September. Our feeling, strongly, is that he was right and should keep to his word. We in New York remember well what it was like for the country to rally around our city in a desperate hour. New York survived and has flourished. New Orleans can too.

Of course, New Orleans's local and state officials must do their part as well, and demonstrate the political and practical will to rebuild the city efficiently and responsibly. They must, as quickly as possible, produce a comprehensive plan for putting New Orleans back together. Which schools will be rebuilt and which will be absorbed? Which neighborhoods will be shored up? Where will the roads go? What about electricity and water lines? So far, local and state officials have been derelict at producing anything that comes close to a coherent plan. That is unacceptable.

The city must rise to the occasion. But it will not have that opportunity without the levees, and only the office of the president is strong enough to goad Congress to take swift action. Only his voice is loud enough to call people home and convince them that commitments will be met.

Maybe America does not want to rebuild New Orleans. Maybe we have decided that the deficits are too large and the money too scarce, and that it is better just to look the other way until the city withers and disappears. If that is truly the case, then it is incumbent on President Bush and Congress to admit it, and organize a real plan to help the dislocated residents resettle into new homes. The communities that opened their hearts to the Katrina refugees need to know that their short-term act of charity has turned into a permanent commitment.

If the rest of the nation has decided it is too expensive to give the people of New Orleans a chance at renewal, we have to tell them so. We must tell them we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities.

Our nation would then look like a feeble giant indeed. But whether we admit it or not, this is our choice to make. We decide whether New Orleans lives or dies.


Virginia said...

Powerful essay.

It seems our leadership is much better suited for destruction than construction or recontruction. If we can invade countries, we should be able to take care of our own cities.


Virginia said...

Powerful essay.

It seems our leadership is much better suited for destruction than construction or recontruction. If we can invade countries, we should be able to take care of our own cities.


Stacy said...

This is from the Chicago Tribune:
Restoring New Orleans to anything like its former self would take an astronomical amount of money--to rebuild infrastructure, clean up horrendous pollution, resettle people, and replace many or most of the 150,000 properties that were flooded. That doesn't count the vast sums that would be needed for levees and other flood-prevention projects that were too expensive to undertake before Hurricane Katrina.

No amount of money will change the fact that this is no place for a large urban population. Most of the city is below sea level, and it continues to sink, even as the ocean is rising.

From the CBS News website:
Kusky talks about a withdrawal of the city and explains that coastal erosion was thrown into fast forward by Katrina. He says by 2095, the coastline will pass the city and New Orleans will be what he calls a “fish bowl.”

“Because New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, sitting off the coast of North America surrounded by a 50- to 100-foot-tall levee system to protect the city,” explains Kusky.

He says the city will be completely surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico just 90 years from now.

It will be a very tough call, which is probably why no one seems to be doing anything. I don't know what the answer is, just know that there is not an easy one.

Paul said...

The French quarter will survive, but be owned and run by a private corporation like Disneyworld, or will be totally inauthentic like Branson (how about "Jesus-jazz"?). The levees will receive minimal repair. The low lying business and neighborhoods will never be rebuilt. Bush, a liar? Who knew?

tess said...

As I cry in my coffee...

The following was written by Boysie Bollinger, who is the
CEO of one of the state's largest shipyard operations, and a widely regarded civic leader. An interesting look at the times of New Orleans.

There's not a working clock in this entire city. This morning I went on my
walk and the big clock by St. Patrick's Church on Camp said it was 2:30; as
I walked on, the Whitney clock said it was 11:15, and by the time I hit the
French Quarter a clock there told me quite firmly that it was 6:00 o'clock.

I'm not really surprised at this - New Orleans has always had a problem with
time. Time is not linear here; this is a city where people live in two
hundred year old houses, have wireless Internet and use 600-year-old recipes
while singing 60's songs to their newborns. Time is more of a mental game
in New can pick the year you liked the best and stay in that
year for the rest of your life here and no one says a thing. You can talk
about your great great grandparents as if they were still alive and talk
about your neighbors as if they were dead, and we all understand.

As I walked up Royal from Esplanade on my way out of
the Quarter, a dark sedan stopped in the street right by the Cathedral and
all four doors opened at once. I was twittering with curiosity when the
driver hopped out, ran to the other side and escorted a smiling (former
Ambassador) Lindy Boggs out of the car. Before I could stop myself I'd
yelled out, "Hey Lindy, good to see ya!" Mrs. Boggs, accustomed to such
raffish behavior smiled and yelled out "Hey yourself" as she waved, laughed
and headed to church, surely thinking it's time to pray for better manners
for the likes of me.

We're dealing with a lot of time issues these days, time to meet the
insurance specialist, time to call FEMA, time to put out the refrigerator,
time to get a new refrigerator, time to decide whether to stay in New
Orleans or head elsewhere, time to register the kids for school, time to
sell the house, time to buy the house, time to find a job, time to leave a
job, time to figure out the rest of your life.

Could we maybe, while dealing with all those time issues, take a minute and
remember ? Remember that there was a time when all of this was different,
there was a time when slaves were sold in the Napoleon House, a time when
Mid-City was considered the country, a time when people staged sit ins
downtown, a time when there was no McDonald's or Wendy's or even Popeye's, a
time when the Quarter burned, a time when people spoke French or Spanish, a
time when the Opera House was open, a time when this was all uninhabited, a
time when your refrigerator worked, your house was whole, your neighborhood
wasn't flooded and your city wasn't defined by a Hurricane.

More than any other city in this country, this is a city defined by the
quality of the times people have had here. Maybe it's because it's a port
city, maybe it's because of the food, maybe it's because of the heat, but
this city remembers everyone who has ever lived, loved and laughed here.
People visit us because they can feel the difference as soon as they get
here, they can feel how time is honored here, in the time to craft our
houses and the time to make a roux. They can feel that the city holds all of
our memories, our joys, our sorrows and our triumphs. That any time spent in
New Orleans is kept in the breath, air, water and sky of New Orleans. What
happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in New Orleans changes
the city and its people, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, year-by-year, so that
we can't help but live in the past, present and future.

Time will tell what we will end up looking like, how strong the levees will
be, how many houses will be repaired, but we will tell time how strong the
people of New Orleans are, how deep our commitments to each other are, and
that sometimes the best stories are the ones we write for ourselves.

Once upon a time in a city called New Orleans......

(by Boysie Bollinger)

Carol said...

As I sit here 3 months AK, After Katrina, I am still filled with the same despair that I felt during those horrible days after the levees broke. In September, my heart broke for the inhumane conditions and the horror of the losses. Today, my heart breaks for all those who WANT to go home and can't. It also breaks for the city of my ancestors. So much of New Orleans is in me and makes me who I am; I can't bear the thought of it simply disappearing.

I shouldn't be surprised by our government's reaction. The figures have been repeated over and over again. Clearly, nation building is far more important to this administration than is the preservation of our own soil and people.

Pitiful and shameful treatment all the way around. My relatives will recover physically but the emotional scars will never fade. Even those whose homes were untouched see painful and horrifying images day in and day out. Life will never again be the same for any of these people and our government needs to understand and act on it.