Why rebuild the Big Easy?

August 31, 2007|By STEVE CHAPMAN

The Democratic presidential candidates are fluent in the language of politics and policy, which means they can expound at length on what the government can do for you. It also means they have great difficulty saying the word "no."

When they assembled in New Orleans this week to note the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, they were in an affirmative mood. Yes, they told locals, your problems are the fault of President Bush's disgraceful inaction, and yes, we should spend whatever it takes to restore the city to what it used to be.

But there are worse policies than inaction. Before the nation undertakes the extravagant project of rebuilding New Orleans and securing it from the elements, we might ask if there isn't a better option, not only for the nation but for the flood victims.

The Democratic debate over the future of New Orleans somehow passed over the instructive example of Valmeyer, Ill. In 1993, the town of 900 was swamped, not for the first time, by a rain-swollen Mississippi River. It hasn't been swamped since, because it's not there anymore. Rather than remain in a vulnerable spot, the residents voted to relocate their village to a bluff 400 feet above the river.

New Orleans, like Valmeyer, had long been a natural disaster waiting to happen. Most of the city lies below sea level, surrounded by water on three sides, and it's sinking. On top of that, it's steadily grown more exposed to hurricanes, thanks to the loss of coastal wetlands that once served as a buffer. It's a bathtub waiting to be filled.

As one scientist said after Katrina, "A city should never have been built there in the first place." Now that we have a chance to correct the mistake, why repeat it?

Theoretically, it's possible to keep New Orleans dry. All you have to do is surround it with levees designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. That's what Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton urges. As she said in New Orleans, "Other countries have figured out how to protect their low-lying cities. Japan has done it. Europe has done it."

But what makes sense on the Netherlands' Zuider Zee doesn't necessarily make sense here. One-fourth of the Netherlands is downhill from the ocean, which means that if the Dutch fail to protect it, they don't have a lot of other places to go. In the United States, by contrast, there are vast open spaces for settlement, most of them beyond the reach of hurricanes.

The cost of the levee system envisioned by Senator Clinton is tabbed at $40 billion. Restoring other infrastructure would increase the cost. The question is whether that's the best use of our resources. For $40 billion, you could give more than $61,000 to every Louisianian displaced by Katrina.

Here's the question that ought to be considered: Would those people prefer that the money be spent shoring up dikes around a natural lake? Or would they rather get the money themselves and decide whether to stay or migrate to less-soggy terrain?

Many, if not most, would choose the cash. That option may be especially appealing since the new levee system can't be completed before 2015 - which means that over the next eight years, anyone living in New Orleans has a good chance of being washed away again. A lot of locals have already voted with their feet, decamping to Baton Rouge, Houston and Atlanta with no intention of coming back.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, writing in The Washington Post, fears the Bush administration is trying to do to New Orleans what was done to Galveston, Texas, after a terrible 1900 hurricane. "Galveston, which had been a thriving port, was essentially abandoned for Houston, transforming that then-sleepy backwater into the financial center for the entire Gulf South," he says. "Galveston devolved into a smallish port-tourist center, one easy to evacuate when hurricanes rear their ugly heads."

Looking back, that actually sounds like a brilliant choice.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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